Recently, I met someone who reminded me why I founded my company — and the impact we all make here at D2L.
Gwinnett Online Campus (GOC) is an amazing place. They are in the heart of Gwinnett County in Lawrenceville, Georgia. They’re an accredited, award-winning public school that offers choices for students from the 4th grade to high school. They give students the opportunity to enroll full-time or take up to five online classes as part of their regular school day through their supplemental program. And they’re a D2L customer, which is why I went to visit them in early December.
It was a great visit — I met with leadership, toured their active classrooms, talked with teachers and had thoughtful conversations with inspiring students about the role that technology plays in their lives and their hopes for the future. It was clear that Gwinnett’s goal “to empower student to exceed their potential through individualized learning paths designed to support and enrich every learning outcome” was connecting with their students.
And Gwinnett is where I met McClain Hermes.
McClain is a senior at GOC. She is, at 18, an entrepreneur, a fundraiser/philanthropist, a decorated Paralympic swimmer, a motivational speaker and an aspiring communicator and writer. McClain is also blind, and one of the most impressive people I have met. Her story has been told by the major media in the United States, but I heard it for the first time from a podium at GOC, where she talked about her academic journey — and after her speech, when we are able to speak one-on-one.
McClain told me that when she was little, she wanted to be an Olympic swimmer. When she was eight years old, she had four emergency eye surgeries due Wagner Syndrome — a disorder that causes progressive vision loss. Instead of being stopped in her tracks by that obstacle, she found a way around it.
McClain’s desire to move forward led her to a place on Team USA as the youngest member on the Paralympic team that competed in the Rio for Paralympic games. In 2017, she competed in the World Para Swimming Championships and won four medals — including a gold medal in the 400-meter freestyle. She holds 15 American records, one Pan American record, and one world record — and in her spare time has started an organization called “Shoes for the Souls” which helps the Atlanta Mission collect thousands of shoes for those in need.
Like I said — she’s amazing.
And I was thrilled and honoured to learn that D2L played a role in her success.
According to her mom Carmen, McClain was originally supposed to go to the only school in the region that could accommodate her — the only challenge was that it was 1.5 hours away. Faced with more than three hours a day in commute time, her family realized the commute would eliminate or cut into her training and extracurricular activities. So, she enrolled in GOC — which is powered by D2L Brightspace.
“My daughter,” says Carmen, “Has never led a stagnant life. She has created opportunities for herself as an athlete and has found lots of creative ways as a member of our community to donate her time and her talents to help other people. GOC and D2L have helped her do all that.”
As a blind student, McClain needs a system that is accessible — and both she and her mom are really pleased with Brightspace’s ease of use – which, they point out, has gotten better and better with each passing year. And because she’s on the road for weeks at a time with Team USA, McClain also needs a flexible system — something that lets her learn anywhere and on any device. Again, that’s Brightspace — which has not only given this motivated young woman the ability to pursue her childhood dream, but is setting her up to follow her next dream.
“McClain has always loved to write — and she’s been accepted into a postsecondary communications and journalism program with multiple scholarships,” says Carmen. “The fact that so many postsecondary institutions already use D2L means she’ll have that familiarity already going into a new program, which also helps.”
In her speech, McClain said: “If I hadn’t been given these opportunities, I wouldn’t have been able to travel the world, and compete, and swim, and do what I love while also getting a high school diploma — which is something my mom is very adamant about.”
All of this left me feeling pretty humbled.
As I left Georgia to go back home, it struck me that I had started D2L two years before McClain was even born. It hardly seems possible — but in a few months, we are celebrating D2L’s 20th birthday.
As a student myself back then, there was no way to know what our learning platform would eventually become. But we had dreams — we wanted to help the world get smarter. And every employee I hired as we founded the company not only had to list big challenges in education – they had to have creative ideas on how to solve them. Right from the early days, D2Lers were focused on inventing ways to help blind or deaf students participate equally in the same classroom as everyone else with the same activities — it was one of the first big challenges D2Lers tackled as we strived to reach every learner.
Today, two decades later, we like to say that our goal is nothing less than changing the way the world learns.
Hearing stories like McClain’s make me proud of the hard work and inventions of many D2Lers over the years. Before D2L, a student like McClain would have had no choice but to be driven three hours a day. She might still have accomplished all her goals, but it would have been a lot harder.
Now the world gets to benefit from this amazing young woman — we get to enjoy her fierce competitive spirit in the pool, her community benefits from her activism and people all over the world get to be inspired by her story.
So, thanks, McClain, for all you do — and I want you to know that all of us at D2L are cheering for you, and we’re behind you all the way.
And thank you to all the other inspiring students for sharing your insights, and the amazing teachers and leaders for their focus on helping students exceed their potential.
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