With a “Never Give Up” Philosophy, Aliya Aguirre ’24 Overcomes Injuries from a Horrific Accident to Thrive at Hollins

With a “Never Give Up” Philosophy, Aliya Aguirre ’24 Overcomes Injuries from a Horrific Accident to Thrive at Hollins

Academics, Internships, Research, Sciences, Testimonials

May 13, 2024

With a “Never Give Up” Philosophy, Aliya Aguirre ’24 Overcomes Injuries from a Horrific Accident to Thrive at Hollins Aliya Aguirre '24

For two weeks after another vehicle collided with her car on June 13, 2021, Aliya Aguirre ’24 lay in a heavily medicated state of unconsciousness. “My body was shutting down to heal the parts that were injured,” she says.

Just a month after completing her first year at Hollins, the biology major was facing her greatest challenge, a gradual and often painful recovery from a major accident that put her in the hospital for three months and left her unable to walk unassisted for more than a year. But as she looks back today on how her life was altered on that day nearly three years ago, Aguirre expresses no bitterness, only an attitude of optimism, gratitude, and perseverance.

“I told everyone from the beginning I wasn’t going to let this one event change my life,” she explains. “I was not going to let this deter my plan of graduating on time, and I was going to do whatever I needed to do to make that happen. And I have.”

“Aliya is probably the hardest-working, most resilient student I’ve ever worked with,” says Associate Professor and Janet W. Spear Chair in Biology Elizabeth Gleim. “She inspires me.”

Aguirre underwent pelvic surgery following the accident and took a leave of absence from Hollins during what would have been the fall semester of her sophomore year. She had to wait until October 2021 for her pelvis to heal enough to allow her to walk using a walker. At the same time, she was immersed in doctor visits and extensive physical therapy.

“My mom suggested that I take the off the entire academic year,” Aguirre says, but she committed herself to coming back to campus for Spring Term 2022. Since she had taken a heavy course load her first year, leaving for a semester did not mean Aguirre was so far behind in her studies that she couldn’t still graduate in four years. But she admits that returning to campus while depending on a walker to get around gave her some trepidation.

“I was so worried because I knew I was going to need special accommodations and I knew it was going to be hard. But everyone worked with me. My professors made sure my classes were on the first floor with access to a ramp. I told them I didn’t want to be rude and that they could move my walker if it was in the way and they said, ‘No, it’s fine. You can put it wherever you like.’ I took a class in conservation biology, and I was concerned about some of the labs being outdoors. But I could bring my walker out into the field, and it was surprisingly easy. The staff in Moody Dining Hall would walk me to my table and bring me my tray. Everyone supported me along my journey.”

By the fall of her junior year, Aguirre was comfortable enough to begin walking without assistance and devoted herself to taking advantage of as many opportunities as possible, both on and off campus. These included a January Short Term internship with Atlanta Botanical Garden, which develops and maintains a wide array of plant collections for education and conservation.

“I loved it,” Aguirre recalls. “I had been on the fence about whether I wanted to do lab or field work, and after the internship I decided that I definitely preferred the lab. I enjoy the fact that you get to see in real time the results of your actions. It’s really interesting.”

Even in the immediate aftermath of her car crash, Aguirre had been in conversation with Gleim about ultimately doing a senior thesis this year. In collaboration with Gleim this year, Aguirre conducted pathogen testing on blacklegged ticks to further understand the spread of Lyme Disease in the southern United States.

“I want to eventually get a Ph.D., probably in microbiology,” Aguirre says. “I’m so fascinated by the fact that these tiny little organisms that have been around for millions of years can have such an impact on people.”

Aguirre says that working with Gleim on tick research “was really easy. Initially she showed me what to do and I worked under her supervision. Once we both felt comfortable that I could do the work on my own, she let me go off and do my own thing. It’s great preparation for when I pursue a Ph.D. or even get a job in lab work. Knowing you’re trusted is a great confidence builder.”

At the 66th Hollins Science Seminar in April, Aguirre was named the recipient of the Ella Faith Mode Award recognizing outstanding student research. She was also announced at Hollins’ 47th Honors Convocation as the recipient of the Alice Bull Biology Award, which recognizes a deserving senior and/or junior student in biology.

After graduating this spring, Aguirre plans to take a gap year or two to build experience before entering a Ph.D. program. She is currently applying for post-baccalaureate fellow programs at various federal agencies as well as lab jobs. She’s also not ruling out looking at jobs outside the science field. “I’ve heard a lot, even from my professors, that scientists sometimes struggle to communicate with people because they are so research-focused. So, I’d like to engage in some professional development opportunities to advance my own communication skills.”

Aguirre recently was able to clear another major hurdle resulting from her car crash by regaining the ability to drive again and getting back her driver’s license. “I’ve been doing things I’ve done before and I’m building up to more things. I’m able to thrive,” she says, “but I can’t say I’m fully recovered because I have nerve damage that causes foot drop, which means I can’t lift my foot. As much as I would love for it to get better, that’s probably going to be permanent.”

Still, Aguirre remains determined and upbeat, which she says is “because I’m stubborn.” Her resilience is also sustained by her family. “I have a niece who is five years old, and she has been one of my main motivators. I didn’t want to give up and not be there for her.”