• Fidel Leal
  • Kemal Atkins ’92 ’96
  • Brian Shangwa ’15
  • Sarah Mbiki
  • Traci Royster
  • Guin Thi
  • Susan M. Branch ’99
  • Ray Christian

Connor Burleson, Joy Maker

Connor never meets a stranger. If you don't believe it, just ask him.
Wednesday, May 6, 2015
By Susan King

I was introduced to Connor Burleson this past winter, but I felt that I already knew a thing or two about him just from seeing him on campus and around town.

First of all, Connor looks like an irrepressibly happy person. There’s a glint in his eye that betrays a good dose of mischief. He appears to have an aura of gentle goodness about him.

These qualities caused me to like Connor even before I met him, making our interview this spring a true delight, because I discovered in the first two minutes that my observations from a distance were right on the money.

Connor was focused and curious for our entire conversation. I learned quickly that he never meets a stranger. If you don’t believe it, just ask him. He’ll tell you he knows at least 3,000 people, and I don’t doubt it. Connor says that life has been great, mostly, because he has so many good friends.

It was striking to me that when I asked Connor what made him special, he cited a facet of his being that many of us might view as a limitation. “I have a problem with my left hand that no one could see when I was a kid. My self-invented techniques help, like opening a cup of yogurt with my mouth or punching a hole in the top with a spoon handle, and opening it from there. I put my toothbrush in my mouth and this leaves me a hand free to open the toothpaste. I get curly shoelaces from a shop on King Street, because they are a lot easier to tie than straight, skinny ones.”

Connor has cerebral palsy (CP), a group of permanent movement disorders that appear in early childhood. Though it is a permanent condition, CP generally does not worsen over time. The cause of CP is damage to the developing brain either during pregnancy or shortly after birth.

Learn more about cerebral palsy

Connor is a 2014 graduate of Appalachian’s Scholars with Diverse Abilities Program (SDAP), launched in 2011 and funded by a five-year federal grant administered through Western Carolina University, which piloted the program in 2007.

Scholars with Diverse Abilities is a person-centered, innovative program that provides students with intellectual disabilities access to a two-year college education with full access to all university programs and services. The program is completely inclusive, which means that SDAP scholars attend their courses - as well as concerts, athletic events and other campus activities - with other university students.

From 2013-2015, Connor was employed in the SDAP office as a part-time assistant and volunteer recruiter. Among his duties were maintaining social media sites, recruiting volunteers, going to classes to talk about the program, and giving tours to prospective students.

Connor’s favorite classes were The History of Jazz with Todd Wright and The History of Rock and with Andy Page, faculty members in the Hayes School of Music.

Connor’s natural love of music has been further cultivated through a circle of meaningful relationships. His dad, Aaron Burleson, Andy Page and local jazz musician Jim Fleri are friends who’ve made music together since Connor was a child.

Jim said, “If there is a joy to growing older, surely it is to witness the transformation of children, both our own and those of our friends, into true peers who share mutual interests.”

Connor’s other great passion is movies. He says he has at least 3,000 films. (I think 3,000 is his favorite number.) His all-time favorites include the Star Wars series and Martin Scorsese’s documentary, The Last Waltz.

Jim continued, “Having known Connor since he was a young boy, it's been a delight to watch him develop into a young man who shares my own love of cinema. His knowledge and passion for the silver screen transcend his age. I always enjoy our conversations about movies and am happy to call Connor a friend.”

Connor’s knowledge and love of films scored him a job with the Appalachian Popular Programming Society (APPS), which presents a full array of recent release and vintage films on campus in the Greenbriar Theatre and in the I. G. Greer Auditorium throughout the school year. He also worked at Blockbuster Video in town.

When he’s not working, watching movies or listening to music, Connor enjoys spending time with his Pop Pop and his chihuahua, Minnie.

For the last year he was an Appalachian student, Connor lived in Newland, a co-ed, suite-style residence hall on the west side of campus. His roommate was Will McGuire, SDAP scholar who will receive his College Achievement Certificate in May 2015.

I had the opportunity to talk with Will just before the end of spring semester 2015. “Connor is a joy,” he said. “I will miss him dearly when I graduate and return to my home in Denver, NC.”

Will’s favorite thing about Connor? “His laughter. I think it comes from deep inside.” When I asked where he thinks the future will take Connor, Will said, “I see him in a happy place. Maybe the beach. He hates ice.”

Connor’s mom, Sheila Burleson, assignments coordinator for Appalachian’s University Housing, is clearly one of his greatest supporters.

“I am so proud of his accomplishments - especially the independence and confidence he has gained in his time living on campus. Connor’s advocacy and willingness to share his experience with others will hopefully have an impact creating continued support for the SDAP program, which has meant so much to us as a family.

“Connor has taught me about joy - plain, simple, unadulterated joy. He brings joy to everyone he touches. Connor does not know a stranger and he can make anyone have a better day, just with his laugh.”

Connor will be attending the N.C. Youth Leadership Forum in Raleigh in June, 2015 to continue to learn about advocacy for people with intellectual and physical disabilities. “After that,” Sheila said, “all I know for certain is that whatever Connor puts his mind to, he can accomplish.”

Related links

To learn more about the Scholars with Diverse Abilities at Appalachian, visit: