As a kid growing up in Wales, Stephen Harris thought about becoming a doctor. But bad grades discouraged him, so he turned to music at age 11.
"I started playing guitar, and it was a practical thing that I could do well," he says. "Success came when I was 18. I had already been out of school two years and, suddenly, I was on the front page of magazines."
A bass player sporting long hair, leather and tattoos, Harris adopted the stage name Kid Chaos and performed at Madison Square Garden before he turned 21. The boy who had failed in school flourished on stage, touring with such rock bands as The Cult and Guns N' Roses.
But the drive to become a doctor never left him, and he got a second chance after he hung up his guitar. Educators in New York determined he had dyslexia, an inherited condition that makes it difficult to read, write and spell in your native language, despite at least average intelligence.
Now, the rocker who once thought himself stupid is, at age 39, on a premed track at Columbia University's School of General Studies. "Even though I've already done it, I'm like a kid who's always dreamed of playing Madison Square Garden," he says. "Now I'm finally getting my shot."
His true calling re-emerged at age 35, when he stopped playing music and decided to give medical study another shot. While trying to gain admittance into the Borough of Manhattan Community College, he learned he had dyslexia. Diagnosis of the learning disability finally attached a name to the academic torment he had endured but never understood. "I'd spent my whole life at the bottom of the educational totem pole. It was painful," he says. "Every time I was in a classroom, it felt like a nightmare, and I thought everyone's learning experience was like that."
Twenty-five million Americans have a learning disability, says the National Center for Learning Disabilities, based in New York. Only 13% of U.S. students with learning disabilities continue to college. Harris was determined to be one of them.
Last spring he graduated from BMCC, and this fall he transferred to GS. He has achieved his goals with help from the disability offices and faculty at both schools.
"Stephen's success can be attributed to his motivation. He's so determined; he just doesn't give up," says Colleen Lewis, director of the Offices of Services for Students with Disabilities for Columbia University. "He works with his instructors, and he goes to tutoring. He does whatever it takes."
Discovering that he had a learning disability was the key to Harris' success. But he has worked hard to pursue his goals. That meant changing the way he looked at learning and processing information. It also meant letting others know about his disability so he could take advantage of the resources and support services colleges offer. "The one thing you can't do with a learning disability is isolate yourself — at least I can't do that," he says. "A big fear I have is looking stupid. You have to learn to be unafraid to be wrong."
After Columbia, Harris plans to attend medical school in Wales and become a hospital-based doctor in the industrial town where he grew up. "I feel like the first half of my life has been more about me," he says. "The next half I feel like I have to balance that out and give something back."
To read the full USA TODAY article, visit http://www.columbia.edu/cu/news/clips/2006/01/04/ExRockerUSATODAY.pdf