By Brett Ashley Hawkins
With roughly 6,000 graduates from California State University of Long Beach (CSULB) this year, 384 of the graduates have successfully completed their degrees while challenged by a physical disability. Among these students, Rob Schlesinger, a Signal Hill resident with cerebral palsy, earned his master’s degree in counseling with an emphasis in marriage and family therapy. At CSULB’s commencement ceremony, Schlesinger was able to have his wheelchair pushed on the stage by his partner, Kelly James, to receive his diploma.
Schlesinger was born in Long Beach on May 15, 1964. He attended schools within the Long Beach Unified School District such as Tucker Elementary School (which was formerly an academy for those with orthopedic handicaps), Hill Middle School, and Robert A. Millikan High School. “It’s a tough road,” said Schlesinger in acknowledgment of his educational journey. “The biggest thing is support and to do anything you can do to build yourself up.”
The educational path Schlesinger took was customary for his handicap, but when he was assigned to attend David Starr Jordan High School, Schlesinger protested. After a negotiation with Millikan’s principal, Schlesinger was granted all first-floor classes, the second student in the school’s history to be allowed such accomodations. The principal offered this exception to Schlesinger under the condition that he maintain a C average. Schlesinger honored the agreement and proceeded to graduate.
After graduating high school, Schlesinger attended Long Beach City College (LBCC) and earned an associate degree in travel tourism and then a bachelor’s degree in speech communication in 1991 from CSULB. Schlesinger’s first semester at CSULB proved more difficult than he had anticipated, and he failed.
It was after this failure that Schlesinger approached Disabled Student Services at CSULB for help in 1985. “They helped with teacher understanding,” Schlesinger said. “I had to adapt to different styles of committee members, but you have to be tenacious if you really want something. It takes a lot of courage; it takes a great support system. If you don’t have the support system, you can’t succeed. I really wanted to do something. My burning desire helped me succeed.”
Upon his spring 2011 graduation from CSULB’s master’s program, Schlesinger celebrated his success with a Disney/Goofy-themed party. An avid Disney fan, Schlesinger felt the tone of the party was very uplifting. “Disney brings happiness to everyone,” he said. “Growing up at Disneyland and being carried on all the rides was always fun.” Schlesinger recently visited the theme park and was wheeled around by a running Goofy all throughout Toon Town. “I felt like a kid again,” Schlesinger said.
Schlesinger has also set up the Judith Schlesinger Memorial Fund in his mother’s honor to help other disabled students. “I’ve always been charitable,” said Schlesinger, who has worked for causes such as muscular dystrophy and cerebral palsy. “And my mom was always a proponent to all disabled persons.” The fund assists disabled persons’ book charges and counseling costs.
Schlesinger maintains his belief that none of his success would have been possible without his support system, including the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, which made him a poster child for cerebral palsy when he was 3 while the organization opened a clinic for the cause. Schlesinger later joined the Elks and became an exalted ruler of Lodge 888.
Another major source of support to whom Schlesinger gives credit is his life partner and business partner, Kelly James. The couple met in March of 1991 after Schlesinger’s father had just passed, and Schlesinger found solace in the instant connection he achieved with James. The couple recently celebrated their relationship’s 20-year anniversary.
With James, Schlesinger created Alohi Enterprises in 1993, first as a travel agency with a different name. Schlesinger aimed to use his travel tourism know-how that he acquired during his schooling at LBCC, but the agency went defunct. Schlesinger then attempted his hand at wedding planning, but eventually opted out due to the high competition within the field. “The business didn’t build,” Schlesinger said. “It was the sort of thing where you would give someone an inch, and they’d take a mile.”
Alohi Enterprises finally settled on becoming a photo booth business in April 2009. Schlesinger’s and James’s business has so far been successful, much to Schlesinger’s enjoyment. “I’ve always had a strong education and work ethic,” he said. “And I’ve always been about not letting a disability hamper what I do, and not living off of the system the way some people do.”