Most people rely on gauging facial expressions to build rapport with a new acquaintance. However, Steven Maldonado ’18 knows firsthand that looks can be deceiving. He cannot make one of the most common friendly gestures – a smile – because of facial paralysis caused by Moebius syndrome.

Maldonado, who attends Mays Business School’s Professional MBA program in Houston’s CityCentre, is an emerging leader in the national Moebius community. As a featured speaker at Baylor College of Medicine’s 2017 Compassion and the Art of Medicine series in September, he will share the lessons he’s learned from living with this neurological disorder.

Learning to connect with others

The Houston native was born with Moebius syndrome, but doctors did not diagnosis the rarely-seen condition until he was a child. Researchers estimate the non-progressive condition affects fewer than 20 in every 1 million people. Besides facial paralysis, this condition in some cases can result in respiratory problems, speech and swallowing disorders, visual impairment, sensory integration dysfunction, sleep disorders, weak upper body strength and autism spectrum disorders.

Maldonado said the condition contributed to his being socially awkward during his early years. The shy and reserved child had to learn to use different skills, such as humor, to build rapport. However, with practice, he was able to forge strong friendships.

Over the years, the condition has led to many life lessons. “Everyone is different in their own way,” Maldonado said. “Having compassion for others is a great thing. I’ve learned that you shouldn’t judge people on their looks, how they talk or where they come from.”

A drive to excel personally and professionally

After earning a business degree from the University of Houston, Maldonado worked for a company that did consulting on environmental issues. Eventually he switched industries and joined Baylor College of Medicine’s Department of Immunology, Allergy and Rheumatology. The administrative coordinator works with the department’s research grants, financial budgeting, and special projects.

Maldonado’s decision to pursue a master’s degree was based on his desire to advance professionally and grow as an individual. Mays’ Professional MBA program stood out for a variety of reasons. “The faculty and the staff made me feel like I was the only person applying for the program,” he said. “They were really personable and always ready to address my concerns. They really made me feel that I was going to be adding value to the program by coming to Mays.”

He credits the graduate program with helping him increase his confidence, become a better speaker and have the knowledge to tackle complex problems. He will use these skills as he prepares to give his first formal speech at the Baylor College of Medicine event.

Raising awareness and helping others

Maldonado also is planning to increase his involvement with the Moebius Syndrome Foundation. After attending his first conference in 2014, Maldonado now serves as the first point of contact for young adults who have Moebius syndrome. In that volunteer role, he helps them connect with other people with the condition.

Eventually, Maldonado hopes to serve on the organization’s board of directors. “Moebius has its challenges and obstacles,” he said. “However, I believe people with Moebius can lead pretty normal lives.”