Student will earn law degree despite health challenges

by Gar Willoughby
Legal News

Camille Burden has accomplished a lot in her 36 years of life.

In 2001, she earned her bachelor of science degree from Central Michigan University, majoring in elementary education. In 2006 and 2007, she earned two master degrees in education leadership and curriculum and development. And in December 2011, she will earn her Doctor of Jurisprudence from the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law. Perhaps Burden’s most recent achievement, however, is one of her greatest – the ability to ride her bicycle once again.

At 19 months, Burden was diagnosed with juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA). This debilitating long-term disease leads to inflammation of the joints and surrounding tissues.

The cause of this autoimmune disease is unknown. A healthy person’s immune system normally fights off foreign substances, like viruses. But with RA, the immune system confuses healthy tissue for foreign substances.

Burden has successfully battled a severe form of the disease since infancy and has undergone 15 surgeries to help repair her frail body. Both of her ankles, her hips, and both of her knees have been completely replaced. But don’t tell her that she’s “special.”

“My challenges are different,” she explained. I don’t take a full course-load like most law students, nor do I have the responsibility of supporting a family. Everyone has challenges. Mine are just physical.”

Though Burden acknowledges that she faces adversity like anyone else, the sheer magnitude of her challenges and corresponding achievements cannot be downplayed. In addition to her academic accolades, Burden has taught elementary bi-lingual education for eight years.

She currently works for the Detroit Public Schools as a second grade English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher. She is passionate about teaching ESL to young children.

“A lot of the kids I teach lack English vocabulary exposure,” she said. “I try to address this and get them excited at an early age. I love it when I can see the light bulbs go on in their minds!”

UDM Law classmates Katrina Hardy and Alejandra Ramirez are big admirers of Burden.

“The best part about Camille is that she doesn't complain about her situation or make excuses,” Hardy said. “If you know Camille, you know that she is dedicated to succeed, no matter what. She is an inspiration to me; (she) makes me want to work harder.”

Ramirez echoed the remarks.

“Camille is an inspiration to us all,” Ramirez said. “Just when I think I am having a bad day, I see this frail girl painfully maneuvering her way to sit in the front of class so that she can earn a law degree. Simply amazing.”

When Burden graduates from UDM Law in December, she hopes to further her passion for helping young people by working in the law related field of juvenile justice or helping frame best practices in education policy.

“I am concerned about the brokenness of the education system as whole,” Burden explained. “I want to be in a position of policy application where I can make some real long-standing differences that truly benefit young people and our community. There are so many policy makers in education without an education background. I feel I have a lot to offer as a teacher.”

Burden credits her parents for inspiring her and has long viewed Helen Keller as a role model.

“My parents could have given up on me and let me lay around feeling sorry for myself,” Burden said. “But instead, they always pushed me. When I couldn’t go outside and play at recess, my mom encouraged me to play the violin. When I couldn’t play sports during the summer like other kids because I was at the University of Michigan Hospital receiving in-patient therapy, my dad encouraged me to read and learn the piano.”

“Helen Keller has always been a role model for me,” Burden continued. “Just think of the time period she grew up in, the late 1800s, and the obstacles she had to overcome. A childhood disease took both her sight and hearing. She taught herself how to communicate with the world and went on to become a world-famous author and speaker.”