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Wheelchair can’t slow Francisco Oller ’16, whose goal is to motivate others 

Life is often an uphill climb for Francisco Oller ’16, who relies on his own muscles to propel his manual wheelchair up the steep slope from his Providence College residence hall to his classes in the Ruane Center for the Humanities.

But the smile on Oller’s face outshines the wheelchair that holds him, especially when his fellow students and professors offer to give him a push.

“Friends always help me go uphill,” said Oller (San Juan, Puerto Rico), who is majoring in management and minoring in political science. “They come up running behind me and just push me.”

Oller was born with Pelizaeus–Merzbacher disease, a genetic disorder of the central nervous system. For a time as a child, he could walk, though he fell frequently. He has undergone surgery and physical therapy and worn leg braces for years, but mostly is grateful that his disorder is relatively mild — and that’s why, when people see him, he is almost always smiling.

“Because I could be in worse condition,” said Oller. “My rare genetic disorder affects one male in 200,000 to 500,000 born. I am thankful that I can speak, that I can walk short distances with crutches, and that my condition is not degenerative — it just stays the same.

“Because I am a miracle, and that is the only way I know how to put it. Because I am a miracle of God, I should try my best every day, because I only have one life.” 

A passion for motivational speaking

Oller, whose friends call him “Cisco,” has immersed himself in the PC community since his arrival in September 2012. He is an admission ambassador at Harkins Hall, welcoming prospective students and parents who visit the College. He serves on the Student Life Committee of Student Congress, working with Sodexo food service and the Office of Residence Life to improve student life.

In August, he was an orientation leader, invited to speak to tutors in the Office of Academic Services about his experience transitioning from high school to college, and helping freshmen adjust to their new surroundings.

“I loved it, I loved every minute of it,” said Oller. “It is amazing to be the first face new students see — to have them tell you that you made a difference just by being yourself.”

Last April, at the end of his freshman year, Oller decided that he wanted to speak about how a positive attitude can help overcome life’s challenges. After he received the necessary approvals, his talk was scheduled for the soft lounge in Slavin Center. When more than 300 people showed up, it had to be moved to McPhail’s.

“It was incredible to have that – to have so many students care about what I have to say about how my life can influence theirs,” said Oller. “It made my day to have an impact on a person’s future.”

Motivational speaking is Oller’s passion. His goal is to be a motivational speaker one day and to open a center in Puerto Rico to help children with physical and emotional disabilities.

Those who have met him have no doubt he will succeed.

“He’s extremely positive and inspirational,” said John Mullaly, adjunct professor of economics, who taught Oller in microeconomics class. “How can you not like him? He’s just unbelievable. I’ve never seen him sad. He’s so positive. It must have been 10 seconds after he came into my classroom — you no longer see the wheelchair, you see an amazing, bubbly, happy, positive, unbelievably smart person.”

It was Mullaly who gave Oller a quote from Olympic figure skater Scott Hamilton, which is now one of Oller’s favorites: “The only disability is a bad attitude.”

Motivated by “a deep faith”

Joseph A. Gemma ’75 & ’77G, assistant professor of management and assistant dean of undergraduate studies, met Oller a year ago while both were waiting in line at Dunkin’ Donuts in the Slavin Center. They soon began meeting there every week for coffee.

“I just think the world of him. He’s inspired me so much,” said Gemma. “I’ve had a lot of students with all kinds of physical challenges. He ranks right up there in terms of his zest for life. He’s navigating what’s going on in his life just fine.”

What makes Oller successful?

“One, he’s developed a mindset that he’s the same,” said Gemma. “He doesn’t see himself as different. He’s got challenges, he’ll admit, but the challenges facing him are far smaller than the challenges other people see are facing him.

“The other part is I’ve come to realize is he’s got a very deep faith,” said Gemma. “His motivational talk made very strong reference to God and the faith that he has in God.” 

“It is the greatest place on earth”

PC’s campus discussion this year is about disability. It began with the book selection for the Freshman Common Reading Program, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, and will continue throughout the year with speakers, films, and discussions.

Oller has advocated for making the campus more accessible to the disabled. It’s not perfect, but mostly, the College has been a great fit.

“For most of my life until I entered Providence College, I was kind of ignored” by my peers, Oller said. “Kids ignored me because they didn’t want to deal with it. They saw me as a bother. At those moments, I saw myself as a bother, too.

“PC has completely changed that. People here have empathy. I feel like any other student – sometimes I forget that I’m in a wheelchair. I go across campus and almost every student or teacher calls out to me.”

Has the situation changed, or has Oller changed?

“I think it’s both,” he said. “I’ve become expressive, happy, I’m loud. I make everyone feel like they are special to me, because every one of my friends is special to me in my heart.” 

He is thankful for his family’s support in encouraging him to leave Puerto Rico for college, and credits PC for “making me feel like a star,” beginning with his first campus visit while he was still in high school.

“It’s made me come of my shell, in a sense,” Oller said. “I enjoy every day of my life now. It is the greatest place on earth.”

— Vicki-Ann Downing



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