Gator Nation News

Meet Mariel White

Listen to her story on Unstoppable Minds, and see photos of her return to campus in this gallery.

Five out of a million people are diagnosed every year with Eosinophilic granulomatosis with polyangiitis. The disease left Mariel White,then a sophomore, paralyzed from the waist down. Listen to her story on Unstoppable Minds, and see photos of her return to campus in this gallery.

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As a student with recent disabilities, Mariel White had to reacquaint herself with the UF campus in fall 2019 after a nearly two-year absence. That emotional first semester back saw her reunited with old friends and supported by new ones, including her trusty service dog Lassie, short for Molasses.

Prior to her illness, Mariel was an active UF student, dedicated exerciser and member of Phi Mu sorority. She is shown here as a freshman with her Phi Mu sister, Ally Tackett, in September 2016. The following year, she fell ill with the rare disease Eosinophilic granulomatosis, which later caused four near-fatal strokes and led to paralysis below the waist.

Mariel was supported by many friends in the Gator Nation as she worked to return to UF – among them, Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow (BSA ‘09). Nine months into her recovery, the Tim Tebow Foundation hosted Mariel’s family in Gainesville for the LSU vs. Florida game (October 6, 2018). Mariel appeared alongside Tebow as his guest on ESPN’s “SEC Nation.”

In 2018, Mariel started the long process of accepting her disabilities and learning how to care for herself as a paraplegic. With the help of a personal trainer and an app for women in wheelchairs (Disability Icon), she lost the 50 pounds she had gained on steroids and built her upper body strength so she could transition from a wheelchair without assistance.

Mariel returned to UF from Atlanta after nearly two years’ absence on August 2, 2019, moving into UF’s Cypress Hall residence for students with disabilities. With Lassie looking on, mother Jill Olney helped Mariel settle into her dorm room and did a heroic job of letting go of her daughter for a second time. “I’m super happy, super nervous to have her here,” said Jill. “Really, she is ready for this. Plus, I’m only five hours away.”

Phi Mu sorority welcomed back Mariel with open arms in fall 2019. The chapter’s historic building underwent an extensive renovation, installing an elevator and a wheelchair-accessible shower to ensure that Mariel and other disabled sisters have equal access. Above, Mariel gets a push in front of Phi Mu house on Bid Day, August 22, 2019.

Mariel’s friends worked to bridge the accessibility gap to include her in group activities – carrying her up flights of stairs or even on their backs, if necessary. Above: Close friend Riley Marshall gives Mariel a piggyback ride in front of Phi Mu house on August 22, 2019.
 
“I’m glad my friends are learning about accessibility and how it really impacts me,” Mariel said. “It’s something I never even noticed or considered before, but now I have to think about it everywhere I go.”

While her classmates are aware of her physical disabilities, Mariel says most don’t realize she is more challenged by learning issues caused by her four strokes and ongoing illness. Initially, she had problems recalling words and had to relearn how to read and do math, starting from 2+2. Today after extensive rehab, therapy and practice, her cognitive impairments are greatly improved, but every day brings new obstacles to overcome, says Mariel, shown here in her Intro to Public Speaking class on September 13, 2019.

Building upper-body strength has been key to Mariel’s rehabilitation and growing independence. Here, she does overhead presses in the Student Rec Center on August 2, 2019.

Accompanying her owner everywhere, Lassie is a welcome diversion when Mariel enters a public space. “People see Lassie, rather than someone in a wheel chair,” says Mariel, shown here at the Student Rec Center. The elevated stretching area is specially designed to facilitate lateral transfers from wheelchair to mat and back.

Being in a wheelchair didn’t stop Mariel from taking on an important mentorship role at her sorority: becoming Big Sister to a Little Sister. The ritual pairs veteran sorority members with freshmen or sophomores who rely on their “Big” for guidance. Here, Mariel is embraced by her new Little – Danielle Murphy, of Atlanta – at Phi Mu House, September 20, 2019.

Support and hugs – like this one from fellow sorority sister Danielle Murphy – helped ease Mariel’s fears about adjusting to life at UF as a student with disabilities. Before reentering UF as a sophomore in 2019, she confided to her blog she was worried her illness would hold her back and other students might not accept her.

In 2020, Mariel changed her major from accounting to sports management and began writing stories on Gator athletes for the UF Athletic Association. Here she holds up two profiles she wrote of Gator gymnasts, while viewing a meet at the O’Dome.
 
“I feel like I’ve finally found my calling,” she wrote on her blog in March.

Like most students, Mariel went home when UF closed its doors in mid-March. Quarantine created an opportunity for her to learn a new sport – boxing – but she admits the public health crisis is “devastating.”
 
The pandemic echoes many of the hardships she has personally experienced with her illness: being afraid for one’s health and safety, staying on constant alert, being distanced from friends.
 
But we will get through this, she says, quoting Ecclesiastes 3: “There is a time for everything… a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance… a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing.”