While her fellow business students were grabbing their bags off the carousel at the start of their study abroad adventure, Megan Belden sat stewing on a chair on a jet bridge at London’s Heathrow Airport. Her wheelchair was nowhere to be found.
For Belden, it was a big deal. No chair, no travel.
Fortunately, the missing $10,000 chair was an isolated incident. It was eventually found in a section of the baggage area where it should have been in the first place. The rest of the trip went smoothly for Belden and her Xavier colleagues—all MBA students participating in Professor Paul Fiorelli’s class, International Ethics in London and Paris.
But there was a silver lining to the early setback, Belden says. “It was the first moment we got there and this happened, but it was good for the group to see it.”
Megan Belden is remarkable for what she’s accomplished so far at such a young age. The fact she’s done so while navigating the world in a wheelchair is both beside the point—and precisely a point she wants to emphasize. She hopes to encourage others to feel empowered to pursue their dreams—no matter what obstacles they face.
Xavier helped her pursue hers, despite the challenges of being born with Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA). She agreed to tell her story because she thinks people with disabilities should be included more in promotional marketing materials.
“It’s really important for potential students to see a lot of different types of people with disabilities represented in marketing materials,” she says. “I see a lack of representation of people who are diverse, especially disabled. I’m always trying to make myself visible so people are more accustomed to seeing people like me with an MBA.”
That MBA is something she’s particularly proud of. She earned it in 2016 after completing her undergraduate business degree in Marketing at Xavier in 2011. She was hired right away by The Nielsen Co., where she had worked as a Xavier intern, and began full time in their Emerging Leaders program working in data analytics.
Three years later, she transferred to their Consumer Neuroscience Group, which uses neuroscience technology—i.e. brain research—to determine marketing decisions. Belden helps design studies for their research labs, then uses the resulting data to make recommendations for her clients’ global advertising campaigns and other business marketing decisions.
“We measure consumers’ brain responses to ads and packaging designs,” she says. “We focus more on new business development. It's a new frontier for marketing, so it’s fun to go into a room full of marketers and get them all excited about brain research.”
She was promoted several times while studying for her Xavier MBA and is now a director of Client Services in the Neuroscience Group. She lives on her own downtown, drives a car, works out at a gym and says—with a touch of humor—that she walks to work every day.
Working at Nielsen has been a welcoming experience, she says. “Nielsen is amazing with inclusiveness. They are very supportive.”
That includes regularly sending her on business trips. So being accustomed to traveling, Belden couldn’t ignore an opportunity to join the MBA study abroad trip.
For 10 days in March 2016, the group visited ethics organizations and businesses, including BP in London and L’Oréal in Paris, as well as must-sees like the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower and London Bridge. They attended company briefings where business ethics were explored, including BP's own challenges involving the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
For Professor Fiorelli, making sure the trip is available to all students each year is a priority. But this was the first time he had a student in a wheelchair. He also had a student who is blind. He did additional planning to make sure all venues—hotels, businesses, restaurants—had accommodations and that transportation was available for everyone.
Belden said the MBA office “made sure I had everything I needed, and Paul Fiorelli sat down with me to be sure every step was taken care of.”
That's not so unusual at Xavier. The Learning Assistance Center offers services to support students with disabilities, including academic and physical accommodations, so they can participate in all areas of their Xavier education.
“My hope is that we have an inclusive environment and make reasonable accommodations to make these opportunities available, as we should, to all students,” Fiorelli says.
“Megan stands out because she’s smart, she’s funny, she’s a great student and she has a great sense of humor," he added.
"I’m very proud to have her as an alum. And as a member of the trip, she was an active participant in the different briefings and brought some good business experience and perspective.”
Belden credits her parents for her successes in school and career. They treated her as an equal with her sister, who does not have SMA. “I never expected that I wouldn’t go to college like everyone else,” she says.
Her mom helped her get settled during Xavier’s Manresa orientation when she was starting her freshman year, but eventually went home to Indianapolis, leaving Belden on her own. It went okay until her wheelchair batteries ran out.
“I needed that to happen to learn how to be a functioning and independent adult,” she says. “I never saw my situation as an obstacle.”