Alli Morgan was 22 years old when she began her second freshman year at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. She had previously enrolled as a traditional 18-year-old in the fall of 2008, but life intervened — as it had before — and forced her to withdraw.
Morgan had grown up a high-achieving, athletic kid in the Utica, New York, area with family that instilled an expectation of pursuing higher education. In her sophomore year of high school, during the first field hockey game of the season, she heard a pop and felt the agony of a torn ACL in her right leg. She knew she was out for the rest of the season, but fully expected to recover in time for spring sports. But about six months after her initial repair surgery, a new and unexpected pain began. The screws from the first surgery had migrated into the joint space in her knee.
After a second reconstructive surgery, Morgan developed serious staph infections that set off cascading consequences. For the next two years, she was in and out of the hospital. She went to her junior prom with an IV and wound VAC. She applied to colleges from her hospital bed.
“I was striving for normalcy, which I think is why I tried to go to college right away,” Morgan said.
With the infection finally controlled with IV antibiotics, Morgan set her sights on attending Rensselaer. But the infection returned within a month of her arrival on campus, and Morgan had to take a medical leave of absence. After years of second opinions and visits to specialists, a hematologist diagnosed Morgan with a rare connective tissue disorder that was preventing her wound from healing. There was no cure. Morgan’s leg would be amputated at the thigh.
“Because I’d been in pain for six years, it represented freedom and a step toward independence,” Morgan said.
Ever the athlete, she became the first female to compete with the United States adaptive skeleton team, continuing to qualify for several years. She remained determined to get back to Rensselaer, which she had chosen for its reputation. She returned to campus in the fall of 2012.
That same year, a cultural anthropology class in the Department of Science and Technology Studies (STS) completely changed her life and helped her chart a new path. “What that course did was it gave me language and an understanding of the politics around knowledge production,” Morgan said. “It gave me a sense of the expertise that I developed as a patient, and it gave a place for that in my pre-medical education.”
In her time on campus, Morgan was active in the Rensselaer community as an emergency medical technician for the campus ambulance service and made the Dean’s List six times. When she graduates this year with a Ph.D. in STS, she will also have earned a bachelor of science and a master’s degree at Rensselaer.
Admitted into the FlexMed program in her sophomore year, Morgan intends to pursue her medical degree at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.