Wichita State student finds motivation after accident

Just before 3 p.m. today, Thanh Vo will drive to Koch Arena at Wichita State University to pick up her diploma. Most people call it the walk, as in the graduation walk, the short hike across the stage to take the diploma earned with hard study and a good grade point average.

But Thanh will not walk. Instead she will roll, in her wheelchair, a chair in which she has learned many things.

* * *

There are plenty of inspiring stories to be told among the graduates sitting in Koch and in other arenas this spring.

It is hard to earn a college degree. Each graduate has to overcome obstacles, some of them self-imposed.

It is hard to earn a degree from a wheelchair.

And it is harder — almost infinitely hard — to train yourself to have patience and love and dedication to the point where you say what Thanh Vo said on Thursday, a day before she drove herself to pick up her diploma:

"The accident was one of the best things that ever could have happened to me."

* * *

The accident that broke her spinal cord occurred on K-96 in September 2004. Thanh was 19 years old, and was a poor and undisciplined student.

She was a member of a loving Wichita Vietnamese family, dedicated to work, to one another, and to education. They wanted her to study business, like so many Vietnamese do. They wanted her to work hard, but she did not work hard.

She had spent a year getting mediocre grades at Butler Community College. There was no indication this would change the next year, when she switched to Cowley Community College. She had spent one week at that school, dabbling in schoolwork, before the accident.

She and her family were going to the Kansas State Fair in Hutchinson.

A truck driver failed to see her family in the van, and hit them, knocking the van into a roll into the ditch.

Thanh was wearing her seat belt, but the wreck tore her out of her seat and threw her into the grass.

When the rescuers found her, they did not see a scratch on her.

* * *

She spent a week in the hospital and a month in rehab. She learned to use the chair and to do many things to take care of herself. They gave her anti-depression drugs.

After rehab, she went home and lived with her parents.

She lived there for three years.

She shut herself off from friends. She kept thinking, at least at first, in terms of denial. She thought maybe one day she'd get out of the chair.

She felt bored, shut in, trapped.

But she had time to think and to teach herself many things.

Patience, for one thing.

She remembered that in rehab she had seen another paraplegic, a social worker who seemed to do a lot of good for other people.

It did not seem to matter to him that he worked from a wheelchair.

* * *

In those three years at home, sitting in that chair, Thanh learned empathy for others because her family had love and empathy for her. Had she chosen to stay home, they would have cared for her for life.

She learned acceptance, which was hard to learn. Would she really never walk again? Very well.

She learned, unfortunately, how to accept the rudeness of others.

Sometimes, when she's out in public, she sees people staring at her, merely because she's in a wheelchair. She sometimes speaks up to these people, as a young woman of only 26. "I suppose you've never seen such a pretty girl in a wheelchair!" she will say.

She learned diligence and drive. "I was so isolated," she said. "I'd shut myself off from people, from friends, from hanging out."

She learned to love learning.

* * *

When she decided to go back to school, she did so with a diligence and zeal she'd never shown before.

"I no longer wanted to stay at home and do nothing," she said. "And I wanted to see if I could help others."

She realized that her mistakes — isolating herself, for example, and getting mediocre grades — were all choices that she had made.

She realized she could make other choices.

At Butler, when she had two working legs, her grade point average was an unspectacular 2.5 out of 4. But in her social work studies at Wichita State, undertaken from her wheelchair, she earned a 3.7.

"Straight A's and B's," she said.

The thing is, she said, things in this world could be a lot worse, for her and for all of us. She gets tears in her eyes when she remembers that her family and her cousins were in that van when it rolled, and they could have died. But they lived.

She learned that we need to cherish what we have, not what we've lost.

* * *

The fact is, every person who graduates from college has one disability or another.

Some have wheelchairs. Some are blind.

Some got their diploma in spite of long illnesses, or an inability to read or write fluently. Or some guy graduates not because he's good at math but because his girlfriend tutored him through Algebra I.

Some people struggle because they lack empathy for others.

And so each graduation is not just a triumph over test scores and difficult course work.

Each graduation is, in part, a triumph of the human spirit, however large or small.

Thanh Vo says she's really going to enjoy that graduation ceremony today.

She's going to graduate school, starting this summer. She will get a master's degree.

After that, she'll spend her life helping others as a social worker. Perhaps she'll help disabled people.

From her chair, she said, she will show them that chairs and disabilities do not matter.

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