Hitting his stride

Hitting his stride
Persistence led Ohio State ATI graduate to overcome learning challenges and excel

Story by Alayna DeMartini

Patrick Parker’s route to a straight-A average in college has been a meandering path.

Through most of his years before college, he struggled. Early on, it was clear to his parents and teachers he learned differently. As an elementary school student, when he was assigned a list of words, he could memorize how to spell them but only in the order they were given. He often fell asleep in classes. Every school day, he left the main classroom for a smaller session where he got extra help.

“I was pretty embarrassed,” he said. “I felt sort of like an outsider.”

Having had to repeat a year of preschool set him up to be older and a lot taller than his classmates, and with long arms and legs, he was uncoordinated, often tripping and falling. At the time, his favorite book series was Diary of a Wimpy Kid.

“I was pretty embarrassed. I felt sort of like an outsider.”Patrick Parker

Given conflicting diagnoses, Parker’s parents were never clear about what type of learning disability he might have or if he had one at all. But they sought help for him—an occupational therapist as well as piano and swimming lessons, to improve his coordination. All of it led to his doing better in school. Eventually he started to see an occasional A on his report cards and then gradually a few more.

Challenges in school  

Then, when Parker was a junior in high school, his father got a job offer in America. At the time, Parker was 17. He had grown up in Australia, in five different rural areas. As his father’s job in animal nutrition shifted him from positions in industry, government, and then academia, the family transplanted itself again and again. Wooster, Ohio, would become Parker’s sixth move and where his father would become an associate professor with The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES).

At first, he was excited. Another move.

“I thought it would be an adventure. Then, the first few months were really isolating,” he said.

What made the Wooster move particularly tough was Parker was the only one among his siblings to go. His brother and sister, both older, stayed in Australia. His brother remained to pursue a job offer right out of high school, and his sister stayed to attend law school.  

Patrick Parker (far right) poses with family members on Moreton Island off the coast of Australia. (From left - brother, Lachlan; mother, Liz; and sister, Mary.)

Away from his siblings and the country he grew up in, Parker grappled with culture shock. He was well accustomed to rural areas but wasn’t interested in football or most sports, and everyone else seemed to be. In classes, tests every few weeks contrasted with what he was used to in Australia when he was only tested a few times for the entire school year. At first, making friends proved a bit difficult. The words he used, his accent, he felt he couldn’t connect with people very well. His grades slid.

“I think it was a combination of a new education system I had to get used to and also a bit of laziness,” he said.

During his senior year at Wooster High School, Parker knew he wanted to travel after graduating. Applying to be a Rotary Scholar for a year abroad, he named several countries in South America as his top choices, having already taken Spanish in school. He was offered a spot in Belgium.

Off to Belgium

“Why not?” He thought. “Why not go?” A friend from school had gone there and loved it.

He had never been to Belgium or Europe.

“On the plane, I was a bit scared and wondered if had made the right decision. I thought, ‘I left everything and not many people do that. They usually go to college straight away from school.’”

He didn’t know any French, but he figured he could learn. With a Rosetta Stone course, he got some basics before leaving. Once there, he found what a lot of travelers do when they arrive in a country: When people started talking, he had to learn quickly.

“I thought: ‘I left everything and not many people do that. They usually go to college straight away from school.’”Patrick Parker

“It’s like you’re thrown in the deep end,” he said.

All of his classes were in French, but he did have one French language class a couple days a week.

In the language class, Parker’s classmates were mostly refugees from the Middle East, all of whom Parker loved talking to. They had such interesting stories about their home countries, and they already knew several languages as they were trying to add another.

The entire experience in Belgium led to a turning point. Before he left, Parker had talked about returning to Australia instead of the United States, but he changed his mind and let his parents know he’d be returning to Wooster to enroll in college.

“He said something along the lines of ‘I’m sick of adventuring,’” said his mother, Liz Parker, an associate professor at Ohio State ATI on the CFAES Wooster campus. “He had a few pickpocketed moments and was ready to come back and go to ATI.”

Returning to the United States, he had a renewed sense of purpose: “I came back from Belgium, and I felt like I wasn’t doing anything for anyone. I wanted to do something with my life.”

That “something” meant not only applying to Ohio State ATI but also volunteering for a meaningful cause. It seemed a natural move, growing up in a family that had often volunteered as lifeguards and fundraisers in the communities where they lived. Being interested in science and potentially in the medical field, he made an unusual choice, even for a young adult considering a career in healthcare. He applied to volunteer for hospice.

“You learn a lot about a person when they’re dying. I think it’s really beautiful.”Patrick Parker

Volunteering for hospice

Parker was introduced to hospice when two of his grandparents died, so he was familiar with hospice’s approach of relieving pain and easing the dying process. The prospect of being around death didn’t intimidate him. Initially, he volunteered working at a camp for children whose parent or sibling had recently died. He drove a child from Ashland to and from the day camp, delivered iPads for virtual support groups, and helped the therapists run the groups.

Even more remarkable, Parker volunteered in the rooms of dying patients. Two nights a week, he fed them, talked to them, or just sat at their bedside so when they’d wake, they’d see him or hear his voice and know they weren’t alone. He called it a privilege. But he didn’t talk about it much with his friends—too grim a topic, he thought.

“It’s a bit sad. But when you accept death and you’re there with them, it can be a lot less depressing. It’s a major stage of someone’s life that should be respected.”

The long silences that sometimes come with sitting with dying patients didn’t bother Parker in the least.

“I was definitely not bored,” he said. “I’m pretty comfortable doing nothing. I can sit and read and think for hours if I have to. I think that kind of helps with studying, too. I can sit down and work for hours at a time.”

And he always left with something, some kernel about someone’s life.

Parker completed a 13-mile run with students in Huy, Belgium in 2019, the year he spent abroad.

“You learn a lot about a person when they’re dying. I think it’s really beautiful.”

It can also be a very lonely time for the person dying. At one point in the pandemic when patients were only allowed two family visits a day, each limited to an hour, Parker helped fill the other hours.

Besides volunteering with patients, Parker also worked part time as an aide to an elderly man with Parkinson’s disease. He made meals for him, gave him medicine, drove him to physical therapy appointments, talked, and listened a lot.

The volunteering and the job, he did all while he was a full-time student at Ohio State ATI. By then, he had honed some new study skills he had taught himself and was excelling in every class.

Arriving at ATI

But before starting at ATI, Parker was really nervous. He wanted to do well. Though his parents had never pushed him to excel in school, he felt the need to measure up to his two siblings. Both were thriving—his sister, in law school and his brother, a young entrepreneur.

Determined to succeed at ATI, he perused YouTube for videos on study tips and landed on a few. One was about active recall. After watching it, he learned to take his lecture notes and write a series of questions about the information, then go over those questions and answers every day. Or, he’d seek out the study questions at the ends of chapters and respond to the questions, repeating the answers, every day. That cemented the information in his mind, so come test time, he was always ready. Off campus, he took Ashtanga yoga and jujitsu classes, both of which helped him with focus.

Much of his first two years of college, he spent in the library. Every weekday, he went to yoga, then to the library, to classes, to lunch, and then back to the library again. “I treated it like a job,” he said.

“Patrick is one the most intelligent, mature, and hardworking students that I have taught at ATI.”John Flad, chemistry professor at Ohio State ATI

Classmates sometimes sought him out for help in the library, where they knew they could almost always find him.

Sciences classes interested him the most. Visualizing a three-dimensional chemical structure came naturally, and he was dying to show how the structures fit together. John Flad, one of Parker’s chemistry professors at ATI, took notice.

“Patrick is one the most intelligent, mature, and hardworking students that I have taught at ATI,” Flad said in a letter endorsing Parker to be named one of 14 ATI students for the Outstanding Student award this year.

“Patrick asked pertinent, well-thought-out questions about the specific topics of the day or more general, insightful questions about how chemistry can help us understand our world,” Flad wrote.

Moving to Columbus

After graduating from ATI last spring, Parker moved to Columbus, the first major city he had ever lived in. A biology major on Ohio State’s Columbus campus, Parker works part time as a lab assistant for the College of Veterinary Medicine.

At times, he’ll call his mom and say he’s going out with friends that night. He thinks he’ll be able to still finish all the work for the summer courses he’s taking, he’ll tell her.

“I think he feels he needs to confess,” Liz Parker said. “I say, ‘Go out and have fun.’”

Dedicated to long hours of work and fascinated with science, Parker hopes to become a doctor in a rural area, possibly in Australia. The need for doctors in remote areas became clear to him growing up. In some inland regions, it takes two hours to reach a major highway, so hospitals—even clinics or doctors’ offices—are far, far away and people suffer with more chronic illnesses in those remote regions. He had been to towns that consisted of three houses and a pub. That was the town. The rest was farmland.

Parker poses in front of an exhibit of the evolutionary stages of man at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

“I’ve grown up around those communities. I have family that live out there, in the middle of nowhere, in Australia,” he said. “I want them to grow up in a world that values their health.”   

Parker’s interests now are as varied as they were in grade school when his study of music shifted from AC/DC to Tchaikovsky, then a tune on his guitar, all within the same hour. Parker’s recent reads include Bhagavad Gita, a book of Hindu holy scriptures, and The Little Book of String Theory.

“He tries to explain it to me,” his mother said of string theory. “He can visualize how the universe is expanding, and I have to tell him, ‘I’m a flat screen person, Patty. That sixth dimension of time doesn’t work for me.’”

Another fascination of Parker’s is learning about differences among people and seeking out those who don’t feel included. That may be because, off and on, he himself felt on the fringes, having moved so often as a child and having had siblings who occasionally called him weird, as siblings sometimes do. He didn’t always win the praise of teachers; some thought he just didn’t want to listen or sit still and follow along.

Even in his early 20s, Parker has already come to realize that being different isn’t necessarily wrong or weird or something to hide. He’s content with himself, his friends, and his interests inside and outside the lab, as long as he’s certain at the end of the day, he’ll have all his homework done.