The Invisible Enemy 

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UNC Professor Matt McHugh doesn’t let his struggles diminish his passion for art and teaching.

Everybody is fighting their own battle and encountering their own struggles. Some are more visible than others. For one University of Northern Colorado professor, some battles have an invisible enemy. 

Matt McHugh, a professor at the UNC School of Art, suffers from ankylosing spondylitis, which is a type of arthritis that causes inflammation in certain parts of the spine. The disease can damage the joint between the spine and the hipbone which causes bony bridges to form between the vertebrae in the spine, fusing together bones. Common symptoms include back pain, stooped posture, stiff spine, fatigue, weight loss and joint pain. There is currently no cure for this disease, only treatments. 

“In short terms, it means my immune system thinks my spine is a foreign object, so my immune system is always at war with my spine even though it’s not,” McHugh said. “It’s hard to explain without feeling like you’re exaggerating. I am just always in pain. It’s just a matter of how much.” 

McHugh began to encounter flare ups during his college career. Over time, he’s learned how to adapt to daily pain. 

“I feel like pain tolerance doesn’t mean that your pain feels less over time,” he said. “It means that you learn how to adjust your activities better or you learn how to pace yourself. The only good thing is you know you can learn how to pace your body around it better and you can find some things that help these symptoms. I’m on biologic right now, which are immunosuppressants, but it’s not a cure.” 

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Despite his consistent battles, McHugh recognizes that adapting to his own struggles allows him to better understand his students. 

“I think that it helps me kind of remember that everybody’s got something they’re struggling with, even if it’s not visible,” McHugh said. “I think everybody has things that are difficult in their life, and it could be physical, it could be mental, or relationship or circumstances like that and so in many ways, it’s a helpful reminder.”

Not only does he inspire the students artwork created in the classroom, but he’s also become a beacon of motivation. McHugh loves to encourage his students to be themselves and find a comfortableness within the classroom. 

“I want to be open enough so that students recognize that it’s okay to let your personal life into your classroom and I want to provide a space where people can share how they’re doing with me without feeling like it’s required or like I’m being nosy,” he said. “I think it helps students realize it’s okay to be who you are. I’m willing to listen to as much or as little as people want to share and talk through.”

Many professors throughout the university have different approaches on how to address personal issues within their classrooms such as a student’s personal life. McHugh doesn’t just view his profession as a job, but sees it as a way to connect with students in a safe environment. 

“I think other instructors have different styles, but I know for me, that makes it feel more comfortable and more personable in the classroom, where we’re not just here just for business,” he said. “I don’t think that’s how life works. I don’t think that you can just show up somewhere and leave everything else behind entirely. There’s different degrees of necessity for that.” 

Sofia de la Fuente, a sophomore studying graphic design, found that having a professor challenge her both as a person and as a student, was all the motivation she needed. 

“Matt was my first ever official drawing class,” she said. “I never thought I needed a teacher, but he had a way of motivating and pushing me out of my comfort zone but not to the point of being past my abilities, despite me thinking it would be. He helped reinforce within me that the motivation comes after the action.” 

Fuente also found how inspirational her professor was in pushing through his own struggles. 

“It doesn’t really matter how much pain he was or wasn’t in, he always wanted to be there for us in class despite it being a night class,” she said.  

Learning from her professor, Fuente found that seeking out help from others can be both a need and a must. 

“Please don’t feel embarrassed to talk to people that could be peers or professors, but especially your friends,” Fuente said. “The people you love will always look out for you. If you’re like me and you’re away from your family, find your family. Just because they’re chosen doesn’t make them any less a part of you. Find people who are passionate about what they do, ideally something you’re also interested in, and just talk to them.” 

McHugh doesn’t just find an outlet within the classroom. When the flare ups get bad, he tends to turn to his own artwork to escape his own reality. 

“It is really enjoyable to just make something that I like,” McHugh said. “On the opposite side of things, it actually helps me sort through those difficult experiences like these questions about time, suffering and mortality. So, in a way, it’s cathartic because I have positive aesthetic experience and sorting through some of this baggage at the same time.” 

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