Ryan Conner, 25, is a master’s student at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) Brandcenter in Richmond, which combines the study of business and creative skills to prepare graduates for leadership roles in marketing and advertising.
“It’s more work than I’ve ever had to do in my life, but it’s also more fun than anything I’d ever imagined,” says Conner, who hopes to work for clients with an influential market presence after graduation—including the Arthritis Foundation (AF).
Using his expertise to give back to the arthritis community is important to Conner, who was diagnosed with juvenile idiopathic arthritis at age 2. “I’ve been affected by arthritis for as far back as I can remember, but when I was younger, I never wanted to talk about it,” he says. “ I’d never met anyone else with it, and I guess I wanted to pretend I was normal.”
Although diagnosed as a toddler, Conner didn’t get involved with AF until after g high school, despite years of encouragement from his pediatric rheumatologist.
His doctor thought he’d be a good speaker and advocate, but the idea of sharing his fears and insecurities was too intimidating then. “I was shy at the time, I wasn’t super talkative, and I didn’t see myself as a leader,” says Conner.
Eventually, Conner got tired of feeling isolated and wanted to meet people who could relate to what he was going through.
The Power of Confidence
At 19, Conner attended his first AF event, the 2011 Juvenile Arthritis Conference in Washington, D.C. At the time, he had a poor body image and low self-esteem. Years of damage from arthritis had left Conner with limited range of motion, stiffness, and pain in his wrists and many other joints. He had to give up baseball, a sport he loved, and struggled with his weight.
Meeting peers with his condition provided perspective—and confidence. “I sort of fell in love with the whole organization,” he says. “It was very liberating to meet people who, like me, had arthritis when they were kids, still have it now, and had some of the same sorts of difficulties I did.”
Since then, Conner has been a dedicated AF volunteer, participating in several events for kids and young adults with arthritis. He is also a member of the foundation’s Virginia State Leadership Board and serves as its Young Adult Chair.
Conner says his work with the Arthritis Foundation has made him a more well-rounded, self-assured person. “ It wasn’t the easiest thing, and there are things I still struggle with today, but I’m a lot more comfortable in my own skin now,” he says.