Disability specialist Dede Norungolo counts her birthdays from the day she nearly died
By Angela Nixon
Dede Norungolo, a disability specialist in Student Disability Services, recently celebrated her 11th “birthday.” The date she celebrates is the day she nearly died.
On June 10, 1999, Norungolo was driving from North Carolina to Tennessee, where she lived at the time. It was raining, and on a highway near Buladean, N.C., her car hydroplaned and went off the road, plunging down an embankment. She was airlifted to Johnson City Medical Center, a Level I trauma center.
Norungolo suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI) in the accident. Through weeks of rehabilitation, she had to relearn how to speak coherently and walk.
“My mom would say it was like an accelerated second childhood,” Norungolo said. “She saw me go from barely being able to hold my head up and not being able to walk on my own to learning how to move from my hospital room to the therapy room in a matter of weeks. The greater damage, however, centered on executive function and was invisible.”
The impact of Norungolo’s head to her windshield resulted in bruising on her left frontal lobe, which governs the ability to plan, organize, manage time and space, and to deal with spontaneity and impulse control.
At the time of her accident, Norungolo, who graduated from East Tennessee State University in 1989 with a journalism degree, was a membership marketing director for the Appalachian Girl Scout Council. Returning to work five months after the accident presented her many new challenges.
“I was not really ready to go back to work at that time, but I thought I was,” she said. “After about three months at work, I started to recognize my deficits once colleagues shared that they were secretly helping me.”
Problems with her short-term memory and trouble multitasking and organizing led to a lot of job frustration. Norungolo decided to fall back on her journalism background and took a job as the news editor with the Erwin Record in Erwin, Tenn.
“That’s when I started to reframe who I was,” she said. “That was the beginning of starting to realize that this accident had happened, and now I’m a little bit different. At the time I really felt like ‘damaged goods.’ I had started to feel like a round peg being forced into a square hole.”
With the help of other brain injury survivors through a support group, Norungolo began working toward becoming an advocate on the road to recovery.
A few job changes later, Norungolo wound up back home in South Carolina. The Greenville native moved to her parents’ home in Seneca to figure out what she wanted to do next in her career, and she decided she wanted to go back to school to earn a master’s degree. That decision led her to Clemson. But she was not new to Clemson — both her father and sister are Clemson alumni, and her father, civil engineer Mike Norungolo, had worked on many construction projects on campus, including the R.M. Cooper Library, the Alumni Center and reinforcing the Tillman Hall bell tower.
Norungolo enrolled at Clemson to get a master’s degree in human resource development to change her career path.
“For several years before I enrolled at Clemson, I announced, ‘I want to work with brain injury survivors to help reintegrate them into the workplace,’” she said. “I was just unclear about what should be my next step.”
While taking a community counseling class at Clemson, a professor asked why she was working on the human resource degree to which Norungolo replied that she wanted to work with survivors of brain injury. The professor suggested she would be better off pursuing a master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling, and since Clemson does not offer that degree program, Norungolo transferred to the University of South Carolina.
While she was earning her degree, she took a position with the South Carolina Vocational Rehabilitation Department office in Seneca, where she worked nearly four years in case management and as a counselor. When the opportunity opened at Clemson’s Student Disability Services, she couldn’t pass up the chance to work with students.
“I’m excited about working with students who are eager to learn about new technologies, new strategies and new coping skills to help them succeed academically,” Norungolo said. “If you’re a student at Clemson, you’re here because you’re smart, and you should be here. Student Disability Services simply helps identify and add more tools to the toolbox that will help a student achieve academic success.”
As a disability specialist, Norungolo consults with students and their families on tools they can use to help overcome social and emotional challenges related to disabilities. Her department works with students who have a broad range of disabilities, from ADHD to mobility issues and everything in between. She is also available to help educate faculty and staff on how to work with students with disabilities.
Norungolo said she feels like her time at Clemson has “come full circle,” because as a graduate student she sought help from the professionals she now counts as colleagues. And like many students, she did not want to admit to herself that she needed help.
“I have had the same attitude that I see many students with now. I did not want to come to Student Disability Services. I didn’t want to believe I had to use accommodations,” she said. “Now, however, if extended time helps me to achieve an A rather than a B, I’ll take that time so that I can process the information.”
She believes her experience recovering from her brain injury and overcoming her own challenges helps her relate to students having similar problems.
“If a student is struggling with cognitive deficits, time management, organizational issues, I can tell them they are not alone. I can tell them some of the strategies that I’ve used and see if they can apply those to their own unique situation,” she said.
Norungolo said the social and emotional healing after her injury were just as difficult as the physical recovery, and that she now has more empathy and understanding for people than she did before.
“I desire a far more inclusive world, and I really appreciate discussion on pluralism, diversity and inclusion, because the bottom line is we’re all human beings trying to be human,” she said. “I’ve said that my car accident is the worst best thing that could have happened to me, and I still believe that.”