Twenty-one-year-old Mike Kozlowski is a student at the highly competitive Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). While majoring in mechanical engineering, he has managed to maintain a perfect cumulative grade point average. In addition to his studies, the Melrose, Mass., native is captain of the school’s varsity hockey team and active in the Sigma Nu fraternity. He belongs to four academic honor societies and takes part in community service. And, oh yes, he was born with a bilateral cleft lip and palate.

“A facial deformity, or any deformity, does not prevent success,” says Mike. “The challenges associated with being different cultivate many positive characteristics, including endurance, courage, and leadership.” Mike, who has had 14 corrective procedures at Children’s Hospital Boston, believes the challenges associated with having cleft lip and palate have helped him develop valuable skills that have benefited him at MIT and throughout his life. Besides physical endurance, he stresses the importance of mental fortitude—the ability to be patient and know that you can withstand challenges.

Although he admits to being nervous before procedures, he says he’s had so many that he knows what to expect and he’s trained himself to get through them. Building Confidence While growing up, Mike encountered “the normal troubles” associated with being different, but by and large, people respected and liked him. Friends and family always supported him. And he met his current girlfriend during high school. “There were a few incidences where I got into disagreements with other kids and their comeback had to do with how I looked,” says Mike. “They were trying to be tough guys and used that to put me down. But I always stood up for myself and took the high road.”

In school, Mike studied hard and participated in soccer, base – ball, hockey, and football. These sports helped him develop good friendships and mentors as well as keep physically fit. And he points out, “As part of a team, you work hard for a goal, and when you succeed, it builds confidence and self-respect.” A New Face Mike believes that appearance may attract people initially, but after that, it’s all about character.

People like him, he says, for who he is, not how he looks. Last summer, though, he underwent plastic surgery at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston to put some final touches on his face. After establishing an identity for 20 years, altering his appearance was hard for him. But he now loves the new way he looks. “I was apprehensive, but after I was comfortable with how I looked and being around my family, I started seeing my girlfriend again,” says Mike. “And when I was comfortable with her, I started seeing my closer friends. After that, I was able to approach all others at school. I got a few confused looks, but I was strong enough to think, ‘They’ll get used to it. Just give them time.’” As Mike reaches the end of his cleft lip and palate surgical journey, he encourages others with any kind of disability not to be held back by feelings of inferiority and to pursue their dreams.