There were proud graduates, speeches and tearful family members at the State College of Florida’s graduation ceremony Friday night at the Bradenton Area Convention Center.
But there was also the triumph of a 24-year-old man who had been paralyzed from the waist down.
In January 2013, Elliot Vasquez got in a car accident that resulted in a broken spinal cord, turning his world upside down. A former track and soccer star in high school, Vasquez had to “let it process a few days,” but he never let the injury hold him back.
He spent six days in intensive care after the accident and eventually had two surgeries — a spinal fusion and another to place titanium rods in his back. Vasquez also spent time in a rehabilitation center and a nursing home while he recovered the use of his right arm due to nerve damage.
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Vasquez used the wheelchair lift to reach the stage and, aided by KAFO leg braces, took his first steps in public since the accident to shake hands and receive his associate’s degree. The roar of the crowd cheering him across the stage was deafening.
Vasquez said that even though the injury forced him into a three-year hiatus from school, his support system at home and at SCF kept him motivated.
For the past two weeks, he practiced using the leg braces in the privacy of his home. In that time, he realized that walking is “like an art.”
“It’s not just a matter of lifting one foot, but also you can’t make a huge step. They all need to be about the same size,” Vasquez said. “The stage is about 60 feet, and that’s what I’ve been practicing toward.”
Each day, Vasquez spent at least 40 minutes practicing with the braces, even if it were as simple as just standing at his desk and working on a paper, he said. It’ll be one of the biggest moments of his life, he said Thursday, on the eve of the ceremony, but “the excitement overshadows the nervousness.”
“I haven’t had the opportunity to do anything as meaningful as a graduation walk,” said Vasquez when asked why he chose the SCF ceremony to make his first public attempt.
Before the ceremony, Vasquez said he felt “pretty confident” he could successfully cross the stage, and that he knows the limits of his stamina. The hard part, he said, would be not focusing on the reactions of his 14 family members who came to watch him take his crucial first steps.
Vasquez and his mother, Yvonne Hall, moved to Florida from Westchester, New York, shortly after the accident for “greater mobility.” He enrolled as a full-time student at SCF as soon as he was granted in-state tuition rates.
During his time at the college, Vasquez got a work-study job in the college’s advising office and had to re-learn how to be a student.
“With an injury like this one, you have to worry about not only your academic career but your body, too,” said Vasquez.
He made the necessary adjustments, though, and is one step closer to receiving his bachelor’s degree in information systems management, which he plans to pursue at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. In January, Vasquez plans to compete in a hand cycle competition in Miami.
“You’ve gotta let the good days roll in — not the bad ones,” Vasquez said.
There were three nominees for SCF’s Outstanding Graduate Award. Yolanda Woody, who earned her associate in arts degree with a 3.41 GPA, received the honor. She plans to transfer to USF Sarasota-Manatee to obtain her bachelor’s and will pursue law school afterward.