MACON--- Ellie Potts of LaFayette knows no boundaries. When she told people she wanted to attend Mercer University in Macon, many people said she couldn't do it.
Potts, who has cerebral palsy, proved them wrong. She graduated with honors from Mercer on Sunday, May 9. This didn't surprise her peers and professors who had seen Potts' intelligence time and time again during her four years at Mercer. The 21-year-old communication and theatre arts major was so dedicated to her studies that she insisted on returning to class the same day she suffered a brain seizure. Not only did she return to class, but she also proceeded to answer all of her professor's questions correctly.
But Potts never does anything average. On Sunday, she fulfilled two dreams. Not only did she graduate, but she also surprised everyone at the Macon Coliseum when she was helped out of her wheelchair and took several steps to get her diploma.
"Walking at graduation is the most vulnerable thing I could do," Potts said. "It makes me kind of self conscious. But I have more guts in me than most people would ever think."
Potts received a standing ovation from more than 5,000 people in attendance at the Macon commencement- one of nine commencement ceremonies Mercer will hold this month. Her friend John Carroll, a rising senior at Mercer, assisted her in getting out of her wheelchair and taking the steps to receive her diploma.
"I knew there was no way she was 'not' going to do this. Her determination is unbreakable. She has an amazing perseverance," Carroll said of Potts. "I'm incredibly proud of her."
Potts, a graduate of LaFayette High School, said this is something she's wanted to do for a long time. She recalls when she first told two of her good friends at Mercer about this dream. They put lots of pillows around her chair, and she tried to walk for the first time.
"The first time wasn't so pretty, but I kept working on it with the help of family and friends, who were like my angels," she said. "Here I am four years later. I did it. I overcame everything that was in my way."
Potts said attending Mercer University has meant a lot to her. She went from having her parents help care for her to having complete strangers assist her with physical needs. She first received help from an attendant agency, and later hired Mercer students, who took shifts assisting her in her apartment on campus.
She said what she will miss most about the University is the friendships she has developed with her peers and professors. One of her closest friends, Rob Saxon, works for the University as a senior Web programmer. Saxon, a 1998 Mercer graduate, also has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair. Potts met him her first day on campus, and she says the bond that they share is very special. He took her to the emergency room the night she had her first seizure. He was also with her the night she first tried to get out of her chair and walk.
Saxon said, having known about Ellie's dream to walk at graduation since her freshman year, he thought he was prepared to see her take the steps to receive her diploma on Sunday.
"But nothing could have prepared me for the experience of seeing the real thing," he said. "There were a lot of people cheering for Ellie, but I think I was the one shouting the loudest. She has blessed and inspired so many people during her time at Mercer. She's got so much inner strength. To be for four-foot-eleven and one quarter, she's a package of dynamite."
Potts said the professors at Mercer have been extremely supportive and encouraging over the years, especially Dr. Tom Trimble, a philosophy professor at the University.
"He just made me feel like I could do anything I set my mind to," she said of Trimble.
The Mercer graduate is now interviewing for a position with a major telecommunications company in Atlanta. She is excited about what the future holds, but says she will always have fond memories of her time at Mercer and her graduation from the University.
"Graduation is important and special to everyone, but it's special to me in ways other people could never understand," she said with a smile.
Potts is the daughter of Ben and Angela Potts of LaFayette.