SVAD professor shares her story about ALS diagnosis

Victoria Carlson and her husband, Steve. (Photo courtesy of Victoria Carlson)
Victoria Carlson and her husband, Steve. (Photo courtesy of Victoria Carlson)

In 2017, School of Visual Art and Design Professor Victoria Carlson was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS, which is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord.

Despite challenges she faces, Carlson has not stopped doing what she loves — teaching.

“My thought process years ago was to be an art director, but the only way to manage artists, in my mind, is to encourage them, empower and build them up, not manage them down,” Carlson said. “I thought an MBA would teach me the business side, but not how to encourage designers to be their best. That’s how I was fortunate to be able to teach [art].”

Carlson has a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction for art education, with an emphasis in creativity and development. She worked as an art director for Baltimore Magazine between 2006 and 2008, then moved to Chattanooga with her husband, Steve, to work as a senior designer for a marketing company, True North Custom Publishing. During her time there, she was put in charge of all the interns, and it was there that she received interns from Southern Adventist University, Chattanooga State Community College and University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. 

Carlson left True North Publishing in 2014 and worked for a company called LIFT 1428 as a creative director. Because of how impressed she was with Southern’s interns, she decided to call the Dean of the School of Visual Art and Design, Randy Craven, and ask him if they were hiring any adjunct faculty, to which his response was “yes.”

As she started her first year teaching in the fall of 2017, Carlson knew that something was wrong during the fall of 2017. That was when she received an ALS diagnosis. The last time she drove a car was in March 2020, when students were sent home because of the pandemic. 

“We all taught virtually, so it became a place where I could continue to teach online,” Carlson said. 

Carlson has taught three classes at Southern: Advertising Design, Editorial Design and Design Studio III, which prepares students for their internships. 

“I really get them used to thinking I’m their studio art director,” Carlson said. 

One of her students, junior graphic design major Molly Untalan, said Carlson has been a major influence in her life.

“She sees our potential and what we are capable of and pushes us to the max,” Untalan said. “She has pushed me as a designer, and I wouldn’t be where I am today as a graphic designer if not for her.”

Carlson said the class Advertising Design allows her to live out her faith. She challenges students to also live out their faith in the advertising industry.

Senior motion design major Susie Kim said Carlson taught her how to value herself as a person and not just a student.

“She always encourages her students to find joy in living and [to] live outside of academics and work,” Kim said.

Carlson said her favorite class to teach is Design Studio III. 

“It’s so practical. All along they learn about typography and rhythm and all constructs of design,” Carlson said. “I put them in a hot seat and teach them to do research, and how to understand their audience ethnography and [how] to intersect their lives in a meaningful way.”

Senior graphic design major Berly Hernandez said Carlson is someone who isn’t afraid of doing anything.
“She’s very passionate and determined,” Hernandez said. “She loves helping people with whatever they need and cares for the world and her students.”

When it comes to teaching, Carlson said she is transparent with her students in regard to her diagnosis. 

“I tell students straight up [that] I have ALS,” Carlson said. “I might fall down. I always tease them because my speech is super slow, so [I tell them] double [your] Zoom time. All the students are so gracious towards me.”

Carlson said her faith was strengthened after being diagnosed with ALS.

“My faith has always been crucial to where I am,” Carlson said. “But surely it [has] come alive.”

She said she is grateful for her husband, her extended family and her friend Victoria, who moved from Chicago to help take care of her. 

Carlson said the disease is very painful, and if she doesn’t care for her body, she can have episodes of spasticity, which is a condition where muscle tone increases abnormally and becomes stiff. Despite dealing with the physical pain, she feels blessed because she chooses to be joyful, hopeful, optimistic and energetic.

She recently lost 23 pounds, is breathing better than ever and feels stronger. Her doctor recently told her that her life expectancy is 10 to 15 years, rather than the normal expectancy of three to five years. 

“I’m going to be grateful for ALS because I may never be cured,” Carslon said. “I have shifted my mindset to ‘God can carry me.’ He is carrying me and redeeming this disease.”When she’s not teaching, Carlson stays physically active by gardening, eating healthy and writing on her personal blog.

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