Commencements are joyous for newly minted alumni, especially those who conquer challenges and add to the legacy of perseverance the University of Maryland Eastern Shore has come to represent.
It might be tough, in UMES’ winter class of 2021, to top the story of Julia de Huarte’s inspiring journey to earning a college degree.
De Huarte was born prematurely with a brain not fully developed.
Her invisible physical limitation early on presented obstacles to learning, and her family worried that a doctor cautioned her highest level of academic achievement might be elementary school.
Dec. 17, 2021 – graduation day at UMES – put that concern to rest.
“Music was really the thing that helped me overcome a lot,” de Huarte said. “I had an extremely hard time reading, spelling and (with) math. I still have a hard time with … those things.”
De Huarte credits Shannon Hurley-Wilson, an elementary school teacher, with helping her find her strengths as a student and make them work to her advantage.
Hurley-Wilson “did things like create songs to help me remember things,” she said. “I still use that same technique to this day.”
De Huarte, who calls Princess Anne home, enrolled at UMES initially as a music education major, but shifted to jazz and popular-style music performance.
In March of this year, de Huarte represented UMES in an all-star chorus of students from historically Black institutions who performed a virtual rendition of the Star Spangled Banner in honor of the song’s 90th anniversary as the national anthem.
“It was an amazing feeling to be selected to participate and represent my school,” she said. “I felt pride in being chosen to sing with so many gifted singers, and proud to be singing our country’s national anthem on such a big ‘stage’.”
A soprano, she also sang “I’m Not Afraid of Anything” (50:30 mark) as a soloist at Dr. Heidi M. Anderson’s presidential inauguration in September 2019. The bouncy but soulful performance inspired an Anderson-led standing ovation.
“It was a huge honor to sing for her,” de Huarte said. “She personally reached out to me afterwards and thanked me. It meant so much to me at the time, and still does.”
De Huarte wasn’t keen initially with her mother sharing the back story of her physical challenges on Social Media earlier this month.
“Julia is a very special woman,” her mother wrote. “Her drive to educate herself and follow all her dreams is simply a miracle and a blessing.”
None of de Huarte’s classmates were aware of how she tackled college level work, and only a handful of instructors she was close with knew.
“The reaction has been nothing short of amazing,” she said. “I did not expect there to be such an outpouring of love and support.”
“Music has really been the only ‘language’ I’ve ever really understood. It has helped me with so many other things,” she said. “I’ve liked to sing for as long as I can remember. I didn’t really realize I had a ‘beautiful’ voice until teachers (who) specialize in music started telling me I did.”
De Huarte is already “looking ahead to the next chapter.”
“I’m planning on attending grad school next fall, and from there, who knows?”
“I’d like to travel the world, singing and spreading the gift of music to whoever needs to hear it,” she said. “It saved me … maybe I can pay it forward, and do that for someone, too.”