Freshman Ali McManus defies the odds to musically inspire others

Freshman Ali McManus defies the odds to musically inspire others
OU freshman Ali McManus uses music to overcome her challenges and inspire others.

In some ways, 19-year-old Oakland University freshman Ali McManus is a typical college student. She is enjoying the freedom and independence of living in Oak View Hall and has met a lot of new friends. She loves her Writing 150, Communications 101 and online songwriting classes. She’d like more gluten-free food options in the cafeteria. And, she is a singer/songwriter who is working on her debut EP.


In other ways, she is not a typical college student. To get here, she has had to fight through numerous medical obstacles, long hospital stays and physical challenges. Fellow students might recognize her as the smiling, “fashionably-dressed” young woman in a power wheelchair set off by a teal OU backpack. But, rather than focusing on her own challenges, McManus has chosen to find ways she can inspire others.


After being born three months premature and weighing only one pound, seven ounces at one point in the neonatal intensive care unit, she began her life with just a 50/50 chance of survival. Beating those odds has taught her to approach each day with a positive attitude, tremendous courage and incredible strength.


ali playing piano
Ali McManus playing piano.
photos by Shellie Jaksen

It is a rare bone disorder, including scoliosis and osteoporosis, that has left McManus in a wheelchair since the age of seven. She has gone through a total of 10 surgeries, one which confined her to a full body cast at the age of nine for 67 days. She has also endured numerous halo tractions where a metal frame was screwed into her skull while 45-pound weights were hung from it in hopes of straightening and aligning her spine. Complicating matters, the osteoporosis has affected her skeletal frame to the point that doctors say her bones are very weak and brittle, making it very easy for her to sustain fractures.


At age 13, McManus spent nine months at Shriners Hospital in St. Louis and, in 2010, she underwent a 12-hour spinal fusion surgery to insert steel rods into the length of her back and neck to fuse and straighten her spine which had twisted to a curvature of 145 degrees, crushing her internal organs and decreasing her lung capacity to just 19 percent. As a tribute to her tenacity, she was awarded the title of “Patient Ambassador” at Shriner’s for the positive effect of her music.


Through all of these challenges, McManus has consistently utilized her passion for music as a healing outlet. She began by singing and writing lyrics early in  life and later took up the piano at the age of 14 and guitar at 16. The music – writing, lessons, performing – became something to look forward to and allowed her to express her feelings.


Today, McManus’ health is the best it has ever been and she continues to sing and play music regularly at area events, festivals, fundraisers and coffee houses. She also makes time for special performances at hospitals and sees that as another way to give back.


“I have made it my goal to inspire and impact as many people as I can, and I do this through music,” said McManus. “I write original songs that reflect my life experiences and I hope to impact someone else’s life through my messages. I show others that you are who you are, no one else, so just be your BEST self and remember to smile.”


Under the tutelage and guidance of voice coach Jennifer Kincer (special lecturer in music education at OU and Oakland alumna herself), McManus’ talents, confidence and experience continue to grow. She has made an estimated 100-125 musical performance appearances in the past three years.  In fact, she performs again during the Downtown Rochester Farmers’ Market, located at the corner of East Third and Water Street, on Saturday, October 8 at noon.


Now a member of the Golden Grizzlies' family, and part of the second largest freshman class in university history (2,595 students), she hopes people will come up and say hello when they see her on campus and, of course, visit her website.

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ali at piano