Jessica Cox inspires by example.
The 32-year-old woman is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as being the only person without arms to obtain a pilot's license. She holds a black belt in martial arts, surfs, and drives using her feet.
On Monday, she spoke to high school and college students at Rutgers-Camden, where she told them her desire to achieve far outweighed her physical disability.
"I spent the majority of my childhood every day being judged and told what I could do, or more importantly, what I couldn't do," she said. At a young age, she decided to focus on all that she could do rather than surrender to the words "I can't."
Her visit to Rutgers was sponsored by the university and the Camden Youth Aviation Program, which uses flying to expand the dreams of disadvantaged South Jersey youths.
Cox, of Tucson, Ariz., was born without arms as a result of a rare defect. Monday, she demonstrated using her feet for daily activities that most people do with their hands, including eating, bathing, and dressing.
Borrowing a student's sneaker, Cox used her toes to make a loose bow as she explained that by the age of 7, she had learned how to tie her shoes.
"I learned the importance of thinking outside the shoe," she said. "My whole life is about doing things different."
Cox said she was not always comfortable with her appearance. She wore prosthetic arms with hooks on the ends until eighth grade, when she tucked them into the closet and boarded her school bus without them.
In elementary school, she said, she would wear long-sleeved shirts to hide the prosthetics. On the playground, she dreamed of flying, taking her friends for rides one at a time.
Before learning to fly, Cox had other challenges. At 14, she earned a black belt in tae kwon do.
A couple of years later, she learned to drive using only her feet. She recalled the instructor's expression - and sweat - when he got into the car and noticed her disability. Had he ever been driven by someone with no arms, she asked. He had not. She told him, "Well, you might want to buckle up then."
She passed, and left with her license in her right foot. The victory was short-lived, as her license later was suspended. A neighbor complained that it was not safe for Cox to drive a car that was not modified. She took another test in a modified vehicle, but got an unrestricted license again after showing she was a better driver without the modifications.
At the University of Arizona, Cox majored in psychology, graduating in 2005. Today, she travels throughout the United States and abroad as a motivational speaker.
She credits her parents for her success, as they believed in what she could achieve. She also recalled seeing a woman with no arms on television. She had two sons, and changed her babies' diapers using only her feet. The woman, she said, became her mentor.
Cox said her most difficult task was her "journey of self-acceptance, journey of self-confidence, and the journey of knowing this is exactly how God intended me to be."
When she started flying lessons, she said, she had to convince the instructor she could do all she needed to do with her feet. It took her 45 minutes to secure the four-point harness, which she now can do in five minutes.
It took practice - a lot. Three years later, in 2008, she received her pilot's license, an achievement that earned her a meeting with Pope Benedict XVI.
"It's easy to give up, but it's so important to persist," she said. Before leaving, she asked for a volunteer from the audience, whom she challenged to open a can of soda using his feet. Other students and a teacher helped, using only feet.
The task took six minutes. Then Cox grabbed another soda that she held in her left foot as she quickly popped the tab with her right foot before taking a sip.
There is one thing she has not figured out how to do, which is pull her hair into a ponytail. She said her husband, Patrick Chamberlain, does it for her. He's also her manager. The couple met through martial arts, and married three years ago.
Chamberlain said they plan to have a family, but they are focused now on their careers.
After her speech, students lined up to have Cox sign posters. "She was very inspiring, especially for people still struggling with accepting themselves," said Lasarah Harris, 17, of LEAP Academy in Camden. Harris was with her friends Tenaya Sanders and Nahzhae Perrin; all three are LEAP seniors.
Sanders said she was especially impressed that Cox had pushed herself to achieve rather than holding herself back as disabled. Perrin agreed, saying she too found Cox very inspiring.