Momentum Award: Rachel Newmiller

Rachel Newmiller, A&S ’13, is busier than most other college seniors are at this time of year-in New York for the weekend for a fundraiser and at a ceremony the following Monday to receive the Brian D.A. Hall Award for her commitment to service to Boston College’s Campus School. Although she first presents herself as humble, composed, and a bit shy, the intelligence, wit, humor, and compassion that so many attribute to her unfold upon getting to know her. A Presidential Scholar, Newmiller’s list of many awards is so extensive that it took up a full page in an email.

“The accolades that she receives are completely well deserved,” said Danielle Taghian, a biology professor at BC and Newmiller’s assigned Presidential Scholar mentor. “I think she’s one of our great thinkers, and because of her morality and integrity I put her up on the lines of a Bill Gates-type of person.”

Four years ago, Newmiller came to BC on a Presidential Scholarship seeking to attend a college committed to embodying the ideal of men and women for others. Immediately, during her freshman year, she dedicated herself to the Campus School, a school for children ages 3 to 21 with severe disabilities.

Newmiller had shown up to a room in McGuinn where the Campus School’s Karen Rocco, an occupational therapist, and Mary Lessard, a life skills and transitions coordinator, create and modify materials into custom equipment and classroom devices for the students at who have multiple phsyical challenges.

“She introduced herself and told us she had experience constructing things using power tools and building materials, and was interested in volunteering to help the students at our school,” Rocco said. Since then, Newmiller has dedicated her Friday afternoons every week for the past four years completing projects and designs that enable the students to have better classroom experiences and enhance their sensory processessing skills.

The adaptive design devices that Newmiller, Lessard, and Rocco build together cover a variety of students’ needs.

“I work to create devices that allow our students to increase muscle strength and coordination, to communciate by pressing buttons linked to audio, and to participate in normal daily activities despite their disabilities,” Newmiller said. “Volunteering at the Campus School has been a formative experience and the highlight of my time at Boston College.”

Eventually, Newmiller increased her hours and began working with Lessard and Rocco on both Wednesdays and Fridays.

“There is no right solution for a lot of the problems that our kids face and there is often a lot of trial and error and problem-solving that goes on,” Lessard said, “and I think she really enjoyed that challenge and really ran with that.”

Newmiller’s commitment to the Campus School extends past the walls of McGuinn and Campion Halls.

“She spends a lot of her own time building stuff on her own,” Lessard said. “I may have said, ‘Gee, it’d be really nice if we had something like this for this kid.’ Before I know it, she is back on vacation with a whole new device.”

Last Winter Break, Newmiller constructed from scratch a wooden toy for developing hand and finger manipulation skills and “object permanence.”

What Newmiller dreams up, she creates. Taghian called her “the next Bill Gates” for her creativity, innovation, integrity, and extraordinary compassion and intelligence-all of which are qualities that she applies to her work in the Campus School and in the academic arena. The list of projects Newmiller has initiated or helped design, adapt, and construct include but are not limited to, according to Rocco, “wheelchair tray modifications to improve students’ access to classroom activities, switch activated toys for children with limited hand use, adaptive materials for visually impaired students, and activity boards and sensory trays for students who have visual and motor disabilities to help develop eye-hand coordination and fine-motor skills.”

One of her most notable achievements, however, is her initiative in forming an extremely valuable partnership between the Campus School and the Home Depot in West Roxbury. After learning that the flowers in the Campus School’s playground were inaccessable by wheelchair, Newmiller secured a grant from the company by designing plans, preparing a letter and pamphlet, and researching funding options. The grant was used to construct a wheelchair-accessible garden so that Campus School students could enjoy the space.

“I might have to talk for more than an hour and a half to say everything that Rachel has contributed to us, because this has gone way beyond just helping us build stuff,” Lessard said. “She’s good at so many different things and in so many different ways. She’s very dedicated and hard working.”

When asked to describe Rachel in just one word, Taghian, Lessard, and Rocco struggled to come up with an answer. “I mean, I could give you 50 words,” Lessard joked. “Would you like 50 words? She’s creative, articulate, a good problem-solver- all of it. She’s the whole package.”

Taghian tried her best to summarize Newmiller in a sentence: “Rachel is, in a nutshell, a combination of high intellect with hard work in a highly moral person who has so much integrity and wants to do so much good for humanity that it’s unbelievable.” Taghian stressed how Newmiller’s actions are driven by her desire to “do good by others,” and cited the Campus School as just one example of how Newmiller only takes on projects that have meaning to her. “Rachel is not somebody who would take on a project just to make a lot of money or because it’s a resume-builder, she takes on things that have meaning to her and are very special to her and helping others is one of those.”

Rachel’s background in scultpure, three-dimensional art, and science helped her land a job tutoring inmates in a medium-security prison and an internship in exhibit production at the Smithsonian Institution’s Office of Exhibits Central, where an 11-foot scultpure she and three others created for a client is currently on display. She also used her strong science background to complete a biology major and spend a few years working in Elizabeth Kensinger’s neuroscience laboratory.

“I have been willing to try a lot of different things-from research to teaching-in order to determine what I love and what I want to do,” Newmiller said. “Along the way, I have received a great deal of support and encouragement.”

That encouragement and support has come from people like Taghian, Lessard, and Rocco, all of whom have relationships with Newmiller that she said she “wouldn’t trade for anything.” Other large influences on her BC career include Neil Wolfman and David Botwinik, two of Newmiller’s previous professors. Newmiller’s research advisor, Elizabeth Kensinger, and Rev. Jim Keenan, S.J. of the Presidential Scholar Program have further helped Rachel develop into the person she is today.

That person is one whose absence next year will be felt throughout BC.

“It would be an understatement to tell you that Rachel is the most incredible undergraduate student I have come across during my eight years working with volunteers at Boston College, and in my 30 years as a therapist working in schools and hospitals,” Rocco said.

All who know her are confident that Newmiller will take giant leaps for society in her future.

“She will advocate for those who cannot advocate for themselves,” Rocco said.

Newmiller wants to combine her desire for serving individuals with disabilities, her creativity skills in hands-on projects and exhibits, and her passion for science and ultimately “run a non-profit or socially conscious business that improves the way people live and interact in the world,” she said.

Although she is still working out the details, Newmiller knows that the path she chooses will allow her to “leverage [her] passion for problem-solving, turn [her] thoughts into actions, and utilize [her] perseverance and love for innovation in order to contribute to the greater good.”

“She’s going to be known in whatever realm she chooses,” Taghian said. “She’s going to be a name that is recognizable.”