Clutching an Associate in Arts degree from Palm Beach State College in his hand, Alexis Vazquez proudly walked across the stage at the South Florida Fair Expo, turned to a sea of thousands that included his mother and several family members, and raised his arms in jubilation.
The cap-and-gown moment on stage is an emotional one celebrated by all graduates, but for the 31-year-old Vazquez, it was an accomplishment that seemed inconceivable nearly 11 years ago.
On Aug. 16, 2007, a night with his then-girlfriend began as a dinner date on the beach and ended when the two were violently struck by a car on A1A in Boca Raton. His date suffered broken bones while he ended up in the hospital with a coma for three months.
His neck struck the hardest part of the car, where the roof and the windshield meet, and he was left unconscious.
“All the paramedics that arrived at the scene thought that I was dead, and as soon as they realized I was not dead, they thought I was going to die very soon,” Vazquez said.
But Alexis survived, and what ensued was a journey to recovery, guided by faith and family.
For months Vazquez received therapy for his injuries despite being unresponsive, even going as far as at the Shepard Center in Atlanta for treatment.
Alexis’ mother, Maria, cared for her son throughout the process, feeding him through a tube every day and identifying herself to Alexis in hopes that he would one day respond.
“One morning I was doing that, and he said ‘mom,’” Maria Vazquez said. “That was the best day of my life.”
Before Alexis, a Boca Raton High School graduate, could even think about graduating from college, he first had to go through physical and speech therapy.
Little by little, he regained physical and emotional strength and enrolled at PBSC in 2009.
The task was challenging — he would shake uncontrollably because of nerve damage that affected his ability to write.
“I’m sure there are many people out there who feel like they don’t have enough funds to go to school, they don’t have the abilities to actually show up to class, or they don’t have the resources that they need,” Alexis said. “If they put in the effort, and try, they can do it.”
With the help of disability support services and guidance from his professors, he was able to overcome those challenges.
“I’m not going to say it’s going to be easy and they’re going to pass every class, because I’ll be the first one to tell you that you’re not just going to be given a degree, you’re going to earn it.”
Beyond the classroom, Alexis is using his experience to motivate others and he has been a speaker to students and other groups.
Says Maria: “Anytime a teacher asks if he wants to talk to a group of kids, he says ‘yes’ and he’s always willing to do it, even if he has to spend the entire day. He doesn’t care how far, if you invite him, wherever, he goes because he wants to and he loves to speak to the kids.”
Alexis, who is now planning to pursue a bachelor’s degree in communications at Florida Atlantic University, hopes that his story will inspire other people to try and achieve their goals and aspirations, regardless of the obstacles.
“I had to learn to walk again, and there are many times that I have fallen, and I have the scars to prove it, but I kept trying,” said Vazquez. “If I had to give anyone advice, it’s to try.”
“It’s OK if you don’t make it the first time, or it’s OK if you don’t think you’ll ever do it, but at least try.”