Elliot Vasquez took it for granted when he walked across the stage to receive his high school diploma six years ago. But as he prepared to receive his Associate in Arts degree, he really started thinking about that walk across the stage. Nearly five years ago Vasquez was in a car accident that severed his spinal cord, leaving him paraplegic.
As graduation approached, Vasquez watched videos of students who had injuries that left them in a wheel chair get up and walk across a stage or onto a football field. He said it inspired him to want to stand up and walk to get his degree. He has been practicing daily for the past two weeks. More than a dozen family members, including his mom Yvonne Hall who moved with him from New York to Florida after the accident to give Vasquez greater mobility, will come to graduation and he has prepared mentally and physically for every step he will take.
Vasquez, who played soccer and ran track in high school, hasn’t let his injury stop him from being an athlete or deter him from completing his goals in college. He plans to transfer to University of South Florida, St. Petersburg in the spring to pursue a bachelor’s degree in management information systems. He also will compete in a cycling marathon in Miami in January, using his hand cycle.
It hasn’t been easy. Vasquez spent six days in intensive care after his accident. He had two surgeries, including a spinal fusion and titanium rods placed in his back. He went from the hospital to a rehabilitation center after his accident but because he had broken his collarbone and damaged some nerves, he couldn’t use one of his arms, so the rehab center sent him to a nursing home. He had to recover both physically and mentally, he said.
Vasquez didn’t let being in a nursing home get him down. He said it had a very nice workout room, so he made sure to spend time in it every day. After several months, he was able to use his arm and was sent back to rehab where it only took a few more weeks before he was ready to go back home with his mom and brother to a third-floor walk-up. It didn’t deter him. He continued with outpatient therapy and started applying for jobs immediately and within two months was working for a limousine company booking appointments.
He said his keys to success were surrounding himself with supportive people and keeping a positive attitude.
“You gotta have a warrior mentality, gotta step out of any comfort zone you’re in and go and do anything you want to do,” he said. “You can’t let anything hold you back.”
He and his family moved to Florida for additional year-round opportunities and Vasquez enrolled at SCF full time as soon as he qualified for in-state tuition. He got a job as an assistant in SCF’s advising department where he quickly became a leader, according to Trevor Harvey, an SCF advisor. He is determined to walk during graduation which starts at 7 p.m. Dec. 15 at the Bradenton Area Convention Center. He is walking for his family and friends, but he also is showing everyone that you can’t let anything hold you back. Education is important, he said, and he isn’t about to take this ceremony for granted.
“To go and seize this moment and walk on stage will just be amazing,” he said. “It’s a milestone that I will look back on.”