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Graduating with optimism

After battling multiple sclerosis and working toward her master’s in counselor education with a mental health counseling track Catherine Seybold will graduate on May 9 at USF’s St. Petersburg campus. An optimistic attitude has helped Seybold face the challenges she has come up against in the past decade.

In 1995, a year after receiving her diagnosis, Seybold began working on her master’s degree.

“I just felt that it was going to be a goal for me,” she said, “and it would also be a distraction from the disease. It would keep me occupied. I think it very much kept me focused. One of the reasons that I went into counseling was because I really felt I could make a difference in helping people.”

The graduation date for the St. Petersburg campus is two days after the Tampa campus graduation date. Seybold said she arranged it that way “because it’s Mother’s Day and my mother said, ‘This could be the greatest Mother’s Day gift you could give me.'”

Upon receiving her diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, a disease that affects the central nervous system, Seybold said she had mixed emotions.

“Initially it was very devastating,” she said. “In another way it was a relief because I remember having symptoms back in the ’80s and I never knew what it was. I guess a part of me was in denial, thinking that I’m going to fight this. I keep thinking, ‘They’re going to find a cure,’ and I’m holding on to that.”

Seybold said her desire to help international students, scholars and people in general “probably had a lot to do with growing up in the Midwest. There’s just a sense of trusting people and believing that people are good and trying to see the good in the situation.”

Seybold said that while some days are difficult, the work she does helps her keep a positive attitude.

“I have my days that it’s hard to even get dressed. Those are very challenging days but what keeps me going is the work that I do. It gets me motivated, keeps me focused, gets me out of the house.”

Farah Kahorsandian-Sanchez, a USF doctoral student in secondary education, has known Seybold since 1987 and describes Seybold as having the attitude of “‘the sickness will kill all my cells, but it will not kill my spirit.’ Maybe people can use (her) as an example of not copping out too easily,” she said.

The friendship began when Kahorsandian-Sanchez and Seybold went through chemotherapy at the same time, Kahorsandian-Sanchez for cancer and Seybold for MS.

“Farah’s been like a sister to me,” said Seybold. “She was the first person who really introduced me to the whole foreign student environment and all the diverse cultures and what that meant. She encompasses diversity.”

As director of the English Language Institute, Jeffra Flaitz, now an associate professor of linguistics, got to know Seybold as an optimistic person, despite her disease.

“Catherine was the first person I met coming to Tampa and my first friend,” she said. “One of the things I tell her is that she is one of the strongest and bravest people I know. She just continues to believe in recovery and to smile the whole time. She takes care of other people. Always, always optimistic.”

David B. Austell, Seybold’s supervisor as the director of International and Student and Scholar Services, describes Seybold as “an open book.”

“Her nature, her spirit is very open,” Austell said. “That is exceedingly helpful in an advising situation, especially when we are working with foreign nationals. We work with so many different cultures, it’s important to have that openness. It’s really a remarkable skill she has. The skill is in the context of a difficult illness she’s been fighting for a long time. Those qualities, especially in the context of that illness, are just very inspiring, not only to me, but to everyone who knows her.”

After graduating, Seybold said she will continue to work as assistant director of the International Student and Scholar Services, spend more time with her friends eating sushi and going to movies and will do volunteer work.

“It helps you to get out of your own world when you help others,” Seybold said. “If I spend too much time thinking about the disease, I’ll get depressed. So I try to stay busy,” she said.

Seybold grew up in Oshkosh, Wis., beginning her education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Seybold said she liked living in Oshkosh because of the closeness of a small town where neighbors looked out for each other. She moved to Florida in 1982, originally coming to Fort Myers. She moved to Tampa in 1985 to finish her education at USF. During that time, she went to Spain, lived with a Spanish family and traveled to France, Switzerland and Morocco. Seybold graduated from USF in 1987 with a bachelor’s in communication.

In 1988, she began working for USF’s English Language Institute. Seybold went to Spain a second time in 1989 through USF to teach English at the University of Madrid. When she returned from teaching in Spain in 1989, she was given the job of foreign student advisor at the English Language Institute. She worked there until 1994, when she began working at the International Student and Scholar Services Office. She held the position as a student and scholar advisor there, then moved up to the position of assistant director about five years ago for the department.