As a Rutgers student, Anthony DeVergillo noticed that so many students were struggling through frazzled, difficult days. So the communications major who ran a popular blog in high school called “The Optimist’s Guide to Life” started a club – called RU Positive.
“I wanted to spread optimism and positivity throughout campus because I felt like everybody was stressed from schoolwork, or was just having a bad day and needing a pick-me-up,” he says. Club members dressed up in Halloween costumes and handed out candy for their first activity. “That was a lot of fun because people weren’t expecting it,” says DeVergillo, who graduated summa cum laude last year from the Rutgers School of Communication and Information.
It’s not that he’s a glass-half-full-all-the-time guy. DeVergillo, who has Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a progressive muscle-deteriorating disease, knows his way around daily challenges. But long ago he chose optimism and hard work as his chief tools to meet them. That’s why he recognizes when others are having a bad day, which he knows can turn on a kind word, or someone simply acknowledging what you’re going through.
Throughout his academic career, he never allowed Duchenne to define him. Here’s how he put it on his blog: “As this disease progresses, I lose more and more of my muscle function requiring me to constantly adapt my way of doing things. But this hasn’t stopped me,” he wrote. “While Duchenne muscular dystrophy steals my muscle function and independence, what remains strong is my desire to excel in academics and life and to teach acceptance of disabilities, while having fun at the same time.”
Excel, he has.
DeVergillo’s resume was impressive even before he graduated from Bernards High School in Bernardsville in 2011. Already a seasoned public speaker, website designer, video editor and blogger before heading to college, DeVergillo knew he wanted to study communications. After earning his associate’s degree in communications from Raritan Valley Community College, he arrived at Rutgers through the NJ Stars program to earn his bachelor’s degree in communications.
Jack Grasso’s “Principles of Public Relations” was one of his favorite classes, and Grasso remembers that DeVergillo came to every session motivated, interested and eager to contribute. “He did extremely well on all of the assignments and all of the exams and earned an A with flying colors for the course,” Grasso says.
Now, DeVergillo wants the chance to do the same in the workforce. He has done a few pro bono and freelance projects, but he is eager to work on a team, create and contribute in a bigger way. Finding an employer willing to see his abilities first is his goal.
“A lot of companies are not really into hiring people with disabilities because they think it will take a lot of work,” he says. “There are accommodations I’d need if I were to work in a company, but they are not that difficult.”
DeVergillo began spreading his message of optimism and acceptance at Bernards High, where his English teacher read two poems he wrote to one of her classes without telling him beforehand. One was called “Outside Looking In,” the other, “Eyes of a Child.” Both reveal a glimpse of what it’s like to live with Duchenne.
Afterward, Janice O’Brien’s class asked if DeVergillo would come talk to them.
“I think people are afraid of the unknown,” he says. “That allowed them to understand my disability and that I go through a lot of the same challenges that they do.”
In all, he spoke to more than 30 high school classes, giving voice to the common ordeals students face, with and without disabilities.
"Anthony offered so much insight into how we treat people with disabilities differently and how he remains optimistic,” O’Brien says. “He is such a positive young man and he inspires people.”
In April, Bernards High School named DeVergillo to its Wall of Honor for his inspirational reach and advocacy work for muscular dystrophy and for people with disabilities.
Through RU Positive’s second event in the spring of 2014 – We Are Positive – musicians, inspirational speakers, poets, Rutgers cheerleaders and football players came together to help raise funds for Camp Promise – East, a summer camp for children and young adults with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, which DeVergillo has attended since he was 18.
He’s also on the adult advisory committee for Parent Project Muscular Dystrophy and has shared his experiences on several annual conference panels. Currently, he’s a member of the Somerset County Advisory Council on Disability Issues, working to make the county more accessible and providing community awareness and education.
A year after his Rutgers graduation, DeVergillo is facing one of his most challenging transitions – finding a full-time job that puts his communications skills to work and advocating for another cause: convincing employers to give people with disabilities true consideration.
“Rutgers gave me a really good foundation in communications for getting out into the workforce,” says DeVergillo, who lives with his family in Bedminster. “Now I need the opportunity.”