(Editor’s Note: As Commencement nears, WVU Today is featuring some of the University’s most dedicated graduates. Here is the story of one of those outstanding students.)
In 2009, Justin Heydon suffered a life-changing injury that could have turned him into an object of pity. Instead, he’s become an inspiration.
Heydon will graduate from West Virginia University in May with a degree in mechanical engineering after a neck injury left him partially paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair. Heydon hurt himself diving into a sandbar while on a beach trip.
“Everybody says, ‘Oh my God, it’s so great that you’re graduating, all you’ve been through and all that stuff,’,” Heydon said, “and I just think, ‘Well, you’re supposed to graduate from college, you know?’ “
If Heydon sounds unfazed it’s because the accident did little to blunt his determination and disposition. Although he’d like to walk again someday, he’s thankful he’s alive and mentally sharp. And though he faces physical challenges daily, Heydon focuses more on what he can do than what he can’t.
“I’ve frequently thought, ‘What would I be like if something like that happened to me? Would I be able to do everything he does?,’ ” said Melissa Morris, a Ph.D. student in the College of Engineering and Mineral Resources who is Heydon’s friend, teacher and former advisor. “He’s a special type of person. He could just sit at home and say, ‘Why did this happen to me?, but he never, ever does that.”
Heydon’s story also proved inspiring to WVU President Jim Clements, who included it in public remarks and introduced Heydon to the University community at a pre-game football tailgate. Clements says Heydon reflects “true Mountaineer strength and determination.”
To see live webcasts of each commencement ceremony, go to http://commencement.wvu.edu/webcasts
To read about other outstanding students who are graduating this May, go to Meet the Graduates.
That’s just part of Heydon’s makeup, along with the forward-thinking outlook of an engineer.
The Monday after graduation, he’ll start work as a design engineer at Swanson Industries in Morgantown where he’ll design mining, hydraulic and other industrial equipment. More than a job, Heydon’s duties with Swanson are part legacy and part destiny. Both of Heydon’s grandfathers were engineers, and his father Pete has a construction business. Justin Heydon interned at Swanson for five years, starting with small tasks and moving into more engineering and designing duties in later years. Building and problem-solving have always been a part of his life, he says.
“I was always taking stuff apart as a kid and building tree forts and everything like that,” he said. “I also have always had a liking for science and math, so there was really no option for me except for engineering because I don’t know how to do anything else.”
Click below to hear mechanical engineering grad Justin Heydon talk about his spine injury and how he maintains a positive attitude.
This summer, he’s scheduled to receive a service dog that has been specially trained to help him. The dog was acquired through the local chapter of paws4people and from money raised from a dance at South Middle School, where Justin’s mother Sue is vice principal.
“The dog is going to help me gain some of my independence back again,” Heydon said. “I’ll be able to go some places by myself instead of having someone come with me to open doors and help out. It’s going to be really nice.”
Long term, Heydon is looking forward to designing his own home, which he’ll have built in the next few years.
With commencement, a career, a helper and a new chapter in his life, it’s hard to say what in particular Heydon is looking forward to the most. Like any graduate, he has mixed feelings about moving on.
Click to hear Heydon talk about the people from CEMR who helped him including former advisor and doctoral student Melissa Morris and professors Ken Means and John Nuszkowski, and his friendship with WVU president Jim Clements.
“What I’m going to miss most about WVU is not seeing the people I see every day in class and going through the struggles of trying to figure out a problem together or trying to figure out a project together,” he said.
“But I’m really looking forward to coming back and visiting and maybe even trying to teach during the summer. I’m also looking forward to coming back and going to the football games, of course, as an alumnus.”
Heydon’s graduation might be even more memorable for Morris.
“I’m so proud of him,” she said. “I told him I was going to fail him so he’d have to stick around. I’m going to miss him. He stops in to see me the first thing every day and it’s the last thing he does before leaves. He brings up my day every day.”
By Dan Shrensky
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