For two Northern Arizona University students graduating on Friday, their diplomas are more than just a reward for an academic job well done. For Alexia Adams and Lorenzo Johnson, their diplomas are also proof that you can do anything you put your mind to, even when life gets in the way.
Adams, who will walk the stage Friday to collect her doctorate of physical therapy, now has first-hand knowledge of the difficulty of recovering from a traumatic head injury.
Johnson, who will collect his bachelor’s degree in marketing, has a better idea of how a community can help a single-parent, full-time student-athlete achieve his dreams.
Adams had to withdraw from NAU’s Doctor of Physical Therapy program after she suffered a brain injury playing intramural water polo.
“I have a long history of concussions playing soccer in college, and this last injury I sustained required extensive therapy and medical management,” she wrote in an email.
The severity of the injury forced her to withdraw from school and move back home to live with her parents, because she was unable to live by herself.
“I went through countless hours of therapy and rehab in order to recover from my injury. Two years later, I was finally able to live on my own again,” she said. “I eventually restarted the (Doctor of Physical Therapy) program at a reduced pace with academic accommodations.”
“I was very nervous that I was not going to be able to finish school,” she added. “I had many long conversations with different faculty members and family members about continuing school.
“Fortunately, I had a wonderful support system. The faculty at NAU were very accommodating and willing to help me in any way so I could succeed. My classmates and friends were always encouraging and helpful. My family was my rock. They were supportive in every aspect possible and I couldn’t have made it through without them.”
Adams said one of her favorite memories of NAU is being able to take her dog, Samantha, to class every day.
“I couldn’t have made it through school without her. She was my support day in and day out,” Adams said. “I am an avid dog lover and have seen firsthand how animals can have such a therapeutic effect on patients. I discovered physical therapy because it is one of the few careers that utilize animal therapy."
Adams still has lingering effects from her head injury.
“Every year gets better. I still suffer from daily headaches, migraines and chronic fatigue. I have some vision and vestibular impairments and I am very sensitive to sensory stimuli such as noise and bright lights,” she said.
Adams plans to use her recovery experience in her own work as a physical therapist.
“I have seen many health care providers throughout my recovery. I found that the providers who went through similar situations as myself provided a level of patient care that went above and beyond their peers. Not only were they expert practitioners, but they also embodied a spirit of empathy and compassion that cannot be taught,” she said. “I want to use my experience to change lives. I want to help my patients through their journey, like those who have helped me through mine."
Adams still has to pass her licensing boards and find a job after graduation. She’s looking for something in the acute or subacute care setting, and hopes to get Samantha certified as a therapy dog to take with her to work with patients.
“It has been a physical, mental, and emotional struggle every step of the way, but the journey has ultimately been worthwhile,” Adams said.
Johnson’s obstacles to graduation were more mental than physical. He came to NAU from California to get a college education and hopefully run track.
After a pinched sciatic nerve during his senior year of high school, Johnson said he wasn’t sure if he would be able to -- or would want to -- run again. He was the No. 1 300-meter hurdler in the San Diego area as a high school senior. But he wanted to give himself the opportunity to get back into the sport, so he chose NAU for its W.A. Franke College of Business and its running program.
”I had friends on the team at NAU. I knew I wanted to be part of that program,” he said.
He took a vacation from running during his freshman year at NAU and found himself champing at the bit to get back into it by the end of the year, he said. However, life has a funny way of throwing a wrench in people’s plans. Johnson’s daughter was born at the beginning of his sophomore year.
Johnson had to learn how to balance his schedule as a full-time athlete, a full-time student taking 21 credit hours, a new dad and a man working two jobs to support his new family.
“I had to figure out a way that would work for me,” he said.
Johnson said he’s been working out ways to solve the problems life has thrown in his path since high school, whether it was paying for a new car in high school by running a concession stand or working through three sessions of physical therapy a week so he could run his senior year of high school.
“I figured I can either quit or work through it,” he said. “If I quit, I know it’s going to eat at me forever. I know I’ll be much happier just pushing through it.”
He also wants to be an example for his daughter and younger siblings.
“I want to set the standard for my twin brothers and my daughter,” Johnson said. “I want to motivate them. I have high expectations for myself and I want them to have high expectations for what they can do.”
He found employers who would work around his class and athletic schedule and Aiyana’s day care schedule. He balanced things with friends who were willing to babysit or pick up Aiyana from day care on occasion. With the help of his friends and employers, Johnson was able to graduate in three years and still compete as a full-time athlete.
“I have an amazing, amazing set of friends,” Johnson said. “I wouldn’t have been able to do this without them.”
As a new father, Johnson also found himself dealing with the cost of day care.
“It’s expensive!” he said.
He was paying up to $180 a week for care for his daughter. He was able to find a more reasonable option, but the cost got him to thinking about how low-income families pay for day care and after school care for their children -- and how some of them do it while working two or more jobs.
Johnson said that he wants to create an organization that will help make child care affordable for low-income families and help lift them out of their current situations.
“I want to build a community that will help them. I want to do something more than just donate money or goods to them,” he said.
In order to do so, Johnson plans to earn a master’s in human resources from NAU in the next two years. Then he plans to spend a couple years working for a company where his pay will be good enough to provide for his family and to save toward the creation of his own organization. Once he has enough saved, he hope to start and run his organization full-time.