Pearl McKnight: “I came off of 14 daily medications, and I started walking…. For me to have a total body transformation, it was a medical miracle.” (Photo: Courtesy of Tennessee State University.)

NASHVILLE – Pearl McKnight assumed she’d continue her educational journey in a wheelchair after a 2010 diagnosis of Cryptococcal Meningitis. As a result, she was left paralyzed from the waist down on her right side.

Fast forward 13 years, in what McKnight calls a medical miracle, she won’t require her wheelchair for Tennessee State University’s upcoming commencement ceremony. The 59-year-old mother and wife will proudly walk across the stage to receive her doctorate degree in educational leadership.

“God has me here for a reason,” the Murfreesboro native said.

“I got my masters in a wheelchair so I figured that was going to be what a degree would be like for the rest of my life. So, it means so much to me to be able to walk across the stage.”

McKnight will join nearly 700 students for TSU’s Fall Commencement ceremony on Saturday, December 9, at 9 a.m. in the Gentry Center Complex. Award-winning journalist and former CNN anchor Don Lemon will deliver the keynote address.

McKnight believed the transformative experience fueled her determination to reach graduation and receive her degree on stage without using a wheelchair.

“I have a mission to complete,” she said.

“This offset that I went through was for a reason. To have a better understanding, to make a change in someone’s life.”

McKnight anticipates putting her doctorate degree to use in a position at a school or university advocating for disabled students. Her goal will be to ensure they receive the necessary accommodations for their academic journey.

“I can affirm that the playing field is not level for disabled students,” McKnight said. “I will feel a profound sense of purpose if I can draw upon my experiences and pay it forward.”

The sudden illness and eventual diagnosis set McKnight on a decade-long journey to get her doctoral degree from TSU. She earned two master’s degrees prior to enrolling at TSU and recalled that her health took a turn while she was pursuing her first master’s degree in criminal justice from MTSU. She received her education specialist degree two years later, then began her journey towards her doctorate at TSU.

“My journey has been very long to get this degree,” McKnight said.

Overtime, McKnight had several surgeries and was on over a dozen daily medications for additional health reasons. In 2017, McKnight underwent surgery for a cyst removal in her esophagus. The procedure would have a profound impact on her life.

She remembered whispering right before the surgery, “God, I’m in your hands.”

And upon waking up, she felt her legs. After over six years in a wheelchair, she was able to stand up and walk, all while recovering from the procedure. Prior to her esophagus surgery, she was taking insulin four times a day, a fentanyl patch, and many more medications by mouth.

“I came off of 14 daily medications, and I started walking,” McKnight said. “For me to have a total body transformation, it was a medical miracle.”

Throughout this journey, her husband of 42 years, Kenneth, supported her by driving her to school and waiting in the hallways during her classes.

“I just reflect on her dedication and perseverance,” he said.” I knew that she wasn’t going to stop until she got it (her degree).”

McKnight said he couldn’t put into words how he felt when his wife started walking after six years.

“It was a wonderful feeling because we never thought she was going to be able to walk again. When she did, it was a miracle.”

He and the rest the family look forward to watching her walk across the stage on Saturday.

“She has been an example to me and many others,” he said. “I know she is going to do great things and be a success.”

Dr. Anita McGaha, director of the Office of Disability Services (ODS) at TSU, credits McKnight’s spirit and relentless pursuit of her dream that helped her reach this milestone.

“Ms. Pearl Knight’s story serves as a source of motivation and inspiration for other students on campus who may be challenged with adversities but continue to be committed in their quest for academic achievement,” McGaha said.

ODS provides reasonable accommodations to registered students, which include academic and housing services. According to the latest data for fall 2023, the office is providing support for over 100 students with disabilities both in the classroom and the residence halls.

“I can’t wait to have the pleasure to witness her walk across the stage and be hooded,” McGaha said.

“Congratulations in advance to Dr. Pearl McKnight! We are proud of you.”

(TSU’s fall commencement will be live streamed at www.tnstate.edu/livestream.)