Standing out in the best way

Marissa Yanos

” And now I introduce you to Casey Burkhardt …” Upon hearing these words a Villanova freshman wearing washed-out denim jeans, Reebok sneakers, a sky blue sweatshirt and a navy blue Villanova cap arises from his desk and calmly saunters to the front of Mendel 260.Inquisitive faces of graduate students examine the computer science major as he distributes handouts on adaptive and accessible interfaces and assistive technology. Although his platinum white eyelashes, eyebrows and hair have captured the curiosity of his audience, there is no denying the charm of his bright blue eyes and sincere smile accompanied by two dimples. “Hi, I’m Casey Burkhardt,” he says in a deep voice with a relaxed smile. “I’m a techie and proud of it, and I have what is called oculocutaneous albinism.” According to the National Organization for Albinism and Hypopigmentation, albinism is an inherited genetic condition. The term “albino” refers to a person who has inherited the albinism gene that produces an unusually low amount of a pigment called melanin. This deficiency of melanin results in little to no pigment in one’s eyes, skin or hair. Those who are affected primarily in the eyes have ocular albinism, while those whose eyes, hair and skin are affected have oculocutaneous albinism. In most cases, both parents of a child with albinism must carry the recessive gene. Contrary to popular belief, not all albinos have red eyes and white hair. There are many different types of albinism that result in a variety of physical traits. Most individuals with albinism have blue eyes, while others may have reddish, violet, hazel or brown eyes. Hair color can range from white to blonde to red. Due to abnormal developments of the retina and irregular patterns of nerve connections between the eye and the brain, vision problems are obstacles all albinos face. What a person with perfect vision can see at 200 feet, Casey must be at 20 feet to see. Although their eyes are sensitive to the glare of lights, it is a myth that people with albinism prefer being in the dark. Born on Jan. 21, 1989, Casey John Burkhardt enjoyed a pleasant childhood and mostly pleasant adolescence in the close-knit community of Toms River, N.J. An only child of a mother who works for the federal government and a father who’s an electrician, Casey describes his parents as “protective.” “The first time I went to school, my mom followed the bus all the way to the school,” Casey admits with a chuckle and a shake of his head. Casey first became aware of his albinism in preschool when he realized his vision problems were not a trait shared by his peers. Still, Casey went on to be a part of the gifted and talented program at Cedar Elementary School. Listening to books online has provided Casey with a convenient way to enjoy the popular works of Daniel Handler and J.K. Rowling, two of his favorite authors. While Casey enjoyed his grade school experience, student life at Toms River Intermediate East and Toms River High School presented Casey with social challenges.”Middle school is a time when people are changing and trying to make themselves feel better about who they are by picking on others,” Casey says with a sigh of resignation. “In high school I used to be called Q-Tip, Casper, Milky and Whitey. Kids are very unoriginal. One day I went to school and written in the dirt was ‘No albinos welcome.’ ” Casey displays discomfort as he recalls one specific moment of torment. “I don’t drive,” he says with slight hesitancy. “One day I was riding my bike to school and I saw four people standing in front of me. Two of them jumped me, and the other two tore my bike apart. The guys who jumped me said, ‘We got you, albino.’ ” Despite being given many reasons to rebel or become extremely introverted, Casey graduated from high school with honors, developed genuine friendships and even made time to enjoy young romance.Choosing to attend Villanova was an easy choice for Casey. “I love the sense of community,” Casey says. “You’re not just another number. There’s also a lot of opportunities within the computer science department.” Having owned his first computer at age seven, Casey has had time to develop his passion for computer technology and aspires to work for Google or Apple. One day he would like to start his own business specializing in Web site development. Casey’s future looks promising. “He’s a great student,” says Dr. Daniel Joyce, Casey’s Algorithms and Data Structures professor. “Attentive. Sharp. Asks good, appropriate questions that everyone benefits from.” In addition to being an outstanding student, Casey has been playing the cello since the fourth grade and continues to play for the Pastoral Musicians orchestra. Aside from his musical talent, Casey’s self-effacing humor has also proven to be a rare asset. “His sense of humor can lighten any moment,” says Julie Genarro, a junior secondary education major and cellist for the orchestra. “When we checked our mail together he said he finds it suspicious when he gets multiple ads from tanning salons.””Just because I have albinism doesn’t change who I am,” Casey says. “I’m really not that different than a lot of people. I’m your average kind of guy. I have albinism and that makes me different, but it doesn’t make who I am different.” While Casey’s assertion may prove him humble, his exceptional academic achievements, musical gifts, charm and wit proves he’s far from average.