Freshman Linnea Haga is just one of over 68,000 students who attend UCF, but there is something significant that sets her apart in a sea of students.
Linnea Haga is living with a condition called Usher Syndrome, a disease that has caused her to lose her vision, making it difficult to learn and get around one of the largest universities in the U.S.
Usher Syndrome is a condition that can affect hearing, vision and sometimes balance, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. It also states that for every 100,000 people, four to 17 are affected by Usher Syndrome.
Linnea Haga, emerging media major, and her family discovered that she was deaf when she was 1 year old. Her family jumped right into the hard-of-hearing world by having her wear a cochlear implant and attend speech therapy, which gave her a head start to a mainstream lifestyle, she said.
It was not until Linnea Haga was 14 years old that she and her family discovered she had Usher Syndrome.
“Usher Syndrome can go under the radar for a really long time,” she said. “We discovered my vision loss by chance, but did not know I had Usher Syndrome until we got genetic testing done and it was confirmed.”
Growing up in Wesley Chapel, Florida, Linnea Haga attended Pasco High School, where she said other students and staff members referred to her as "the deaf girl" and were able to help her around campus. But at a school the size of UCF, it is easy for her to get lost in the mass of students. That makes it more important to build relationships with other students and staff, she said.
“After going through four years of high school where everyone knew that, ‘Hey, there is Linnea, she is the deaf girl’ to UCF, where a small percentage of people know me and my situation, has been very different,” she said.
One of the issues Linnea Haga has had to overcome is her tunnel vision. In crowded situations, it is difficult for her to see obstacles outside of her direct view, making it harder to maneuver around a crowded campus, she said.
She also had to figure out how to deal with the larger class sizes offered at UCF. She learned to work with professors at the university to help meet her accommodations by asking them to wear a microphone during lectures and requesting one-on-one time after class.
Though she lives with Usher Syndrome and could completely lose her eyesight one day, Linnea Haga refuses to let the disease rule her life. She entered UCF as an emerging media major with the intention to pursue the character animation track.
Since she was little, she said she's wanted to pursue her dreams to draw and create art. When she found out she had Usher Syndrome, she had to decide if she still wanted to chase her childhood dream of being an animator.
"Once I found out about the vision loss, it took me back and was hard for a while because I am an artistic person, but an artistic person who might lose their vision some day,” Linnea Haga said. “I had to reconcile those two things and had to decide if I still wanted to pursue that. I believe if it does get to the point that I do lose my vision, that I will find a way to work around it.”
Ray Haga, Linnea Haga’s father, said he is supportive of his daughter’s decision to be an animator and encourages her to go after her dreams and handle the outcome day by day.
“As parents, we sat back and said, ‘What could she do in the future?’ We saw that drawing has been her go-to since she was 5,” he said. “When she said animation as a career, we told her to go for it. She amazes me every day with the stuff she accomplishes and her bright spirit.”
Linnea Haga hopes to work in a studio that makes movies and TV shows after graduating. While she said her goal is to animate for a large company, such as The Walt Disney Studios or DreamWorks Animation, she is open to ending up at a studio of any size.
Even with the potential of completely losing her eyesight, she said she still knows there are plenty of opportunities for her to have a job in an animation studio.
“Seeing that there is artwork by artists who are blind has inspired me to think, 'Yes, I can keep doing this,'” Linnea Haga said. “In animation, there are several jobs in the studio, so even if I cannot do the hands-on animation, I can still be a director or a leader of a creative team and guide other people even if I lose my vision.”
Miriam Haga, Linnea Haga’s mother, said she is happy her daughter wants to continue to pursue her dreams of being an animator even though she could one day suffer complete vision loss. She said that although her daughter could focus on the negatives of Usher Syndrome, she hopes she does not worry about her future with the condition since it is still unknown.
“I am so happy that she has something in life that she loves to do, so you [have] to be grateful,” Miriam Haga said. “Do as much as you can, be as happy as you can and fulfill all your dreams, but as long as she has the vision and loves what she is doing, I tell her to just go for it.”
Linnea Haga said her Usher Syndrome has helped shape her into a strong individual who is able to overcome obstacles that life gives her. Though she experienced a hard time right after being diagnosed with the condition, she said learning to live with it has helped lead her to where she is now.
“I am living proof that even if you do have a circumstance that is not very favorable ... you can still push through it and live a successful life,” Linnea Haga said. “I am here in college — obviously I am doing something right.”