Graduand Alex Paquette struggled with learning disability; now he supports other students

Alexandre Paquette wearing a lab coat
Thursday, June 1, 2017 - 2:09pm
Blake Eligh

U of T Mississauga graduand Alexandre Paquette knows first-hand about the struggles undergraduates face as they learn new lab skills and tackle mountains of required reading. The teaching assistant and graduate student in biology has climbed his own mountain to get to where he is now.

School was always a struggle for Paquette, who remembers often feeling despondent about achieving his dreams of becoming a scientist. While math and science came easily, reading was a challenge—the words jumbled together on the page. In university, Paquette intuitively figured out techniques to work around his challenge, creating movies of himself working out problems on a whiteboard, which he reviewed instead of re-reading notes. But it wasn’t enough. Despite his dogged hard work, in his third year of undergraduate studies, Paquette found himself close to failing.

Working with UTM’s AccessAbility Resource Centre, Paquette was tested for, and officially diagnosed with, a learning challenge. The support, he says, has made a world of difference. “As a grad student with disabilities, I felt alone,” he says. “AccessAbility offered emotional and academic support, wanting to know where things were going well, and where I needed more help.” Paquette now uses the UTM’s Test and Exam Centre, where he accesses accommodations like a screen reader to read exams and tests aloud to him, or extra time on tests.

Paquette also found support from Professor George Espie, of the Department of Biology, who took Paquette on as a lab volunteer and then as a graduate student working in biofuel research. “He saw something in me, and his support gave me the confidence I needed to persevere,” Paquette says.

Paquette believes in paying it forward. With colleague Kayla Dias, Paquette has created more than 40 videos to help undergraduate students understand what’s happening in chemistry and biology laboratory demonstrations. Paquette was also co-president of the graduate student society, and volunteered with science outreach programs.

Paquette’s story has a happy ending. The kid who didn’t think he would even graduate from high school begins work on a PhD at the University of Calgary in January 2018. Eventually, he hopes to run a biofuel company, but says he would also like to return to UTM as a professor. “I love teaching,” he says. “I hope I can be an ambassador for people with disabilities. Everyone can succeed with the right help.”