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Nicholas George said it was rewarding to serve as an expert at a prestigious conference about John Milton “on behalf of all people with disabilities like me.” (Photo by Tom Kojcsich, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

Class of 2023: Nicholas George felt like a failure as a child, but now he’s an internationally credentialed expert on John Milton

George, who has autism and epilepsy, built on his love of reading to earn an M.A. in English at VCU and to join fellow Milton experts from around the world at a conference in Toronto.

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Growing up, Nicholas George struggled in school. George, who has both autism and epilepsy, found that he didn’t learn the way other students learned, particularly in math, and it made him feel miserable to work hard without making any academic strides. It didn’t help that he was bullied mercilessly for his struggles and his teachers didn’t seem to understand autism and how to work with him. At times, he simply wanted to quit and leave. Eventually, George switched to a new school where a teacher stayed with him every day after school to ensure he passed his math classes.

With new confidence, he attended Brightpoint Community College to continue his education, and at Brightpoint, he began to find surer footing as a student. He was able to narrow his focus to subjects he loved, especially English. He began to excel in his studies, receiving encouragement from his teachers, and he proved so adept that he worked in the college’s writing center to help other students.

When it was time to head to a four-year school, George heeded the strongly worded advice of his grandmother, Janet George, a Virginia Commonwealth University alum, and followed in her footsteps. As an undergraduate student at VCU, George majored in both English and history in the College of Humanities and Sciences.

George said he was selectively mute due to autism during a brief portion of his childhood, but he was a hungry reader and absorbed everything that he read. His mother – “one of the best readers I know,” he said – also read to him frequently, especially fairy tales, and a lifelong love of reading and stories developed. At VCU, he found that he could truly explore that interest.

“I realized that I'm actually really good at the things that I am good at,” George said. “Back in elementary school, I used to feel like a failure because I couldn't do everything. But it turns out when you get into college, or the real world, if you can be a specialist in one area, that can actually be a really good thing for you. VCU helped me realize that I could be a master at one thing, and that’s actually a good thing for society.”

After earning his undergraduate degree, George knew that he wanted to attend graduate school at VCU but found himself torn between English and history “because both my experiences were so great.”

“I can’t put into words the lengths that teachers went to to help me,” George said. “I felt that any department that you went to at VCU was very open and had lots of teachers who cared about you and were very passionate about their job and fostering and passing down the knowledge that they had.”

George zeroed in on poetry and Renaissance studies within the English M.A. program and decided to see “how far I could go with that specialty.” More specifically, George dove deep into John Milton and his influential work, “Paradise Lost.” George’s interest in Milton had begun in 2018 as an undergraduate when he took an early modern literature course with Gardner Campbell, Ph.D. George enjoyed the authors in the course, such as John Donne and Francis Bacon, and Campbell suggested George take his upcoming Milton course. George loved the Milton course, and when he realized that some of his peers were struggling with the material he started a study group with them.

“I kept getting a better and more focused understanding of the text to the point where I realized I could answer some really complex questions about it,” George said.

George’s “Paradise Lost” studies intensified as a graduate student and included taking creative writing classes in poetry with professors Kathleen Graber and David Wojahn.

“I knew that if I wanted to write this big, directed study on ‘Paradise Lost’ then I needed to understand what Milton is doing with his poetry to begin with, and I needed to try to do it myself,” George said.

Last year, George’s dedication to Milton led to him presenting on an expert panel at the International Milton Symposium in Toronto. Spurred on by Campbell – “Without him being there along the way to keep reassuring me, I don't know where I would be,” George said – George, who wore VCU colors to the panel, spoke alongside experts from schools such as Oxford and Columbia.

“That was where I had the thought in my head, ‘I really have become an expert on this,’” George said. “I presented at this panel, and people for the most part agreed with what I had written. And I thought, ‘Wow, I never thought I would get this far.’ I love the poem so much, and I loved the experience of talking about it in front of a group of experts who loved it as much as I did.

“Growing up with autism, I was constantly being called the ‘R’ slur. It meant so much to me to be able to go present at this big international conference on behalf of all people with disabilities like me.”

George cannot drive because he has had frequent seizures due to epilepsy. He depended on friends and family to shuttle him to class and back, and he had to take rides whenever he could get them. Sometimes, his wife would drop him off in the morning on the way to work and then pick him up afterward on the way home, meaning George would spend an entire day on campus to take a single class. One semester he had a seizure that made him very sick soon after he had recovered from a bout with COVID.

“There were a lot of times when it was a very large adversity that I just had to overcome, and I’m very fortunate that I had the help that I did,” he said.

In December, George earned his M.A. in English. George, who is certified to teach English as a foreign language, is interested in becoming a teacher for adults who are learning English, inspired in part by the high school teacher who spent extra time with him to make sure he passed math. However, he also has ambitions of earning his Ph.D. in English and continuing to explore fresh layers in the works of Milton and others.

“I think I’m still learning, and there’s a lot more I’d like to do now. I’m excited about it.”