Alva Review-Courier -

By Scott Hilyard
Peoria Journal Star 

EXCHANGE: Brain injury doesn't bar man from college degree


PEORIA, Ill. (AP) — He stood stage left, clutched a cane in his right hand and waited underneath his black mortarboard for his name to be called.

Then it was.

"Alex Shelton."

Shelton, 29, of Dunlap, stepped toward the similarly be-robed man who held the empty container of his diploma from Illinois State University. The actual diploma would be mailed at a later date.

Following an unusual fall and a traumatic brain injury in 2008, Shelton's right foot is turned permanently inward and a brace clamped around his lower right leg was out of sight beneath his black graduation robe. He walked haltingly across the graduation stage, but with gritty, chest-out, eyes-locked-forward determination. When he's excited, he walks a little too fast.

"I can't help it. Sorry," he said days later, smiling broadly, and acknowledging he wasn't at his steadiest in front of thousands of spectators on graduation night. "It's all good."

The journey — that part of Shelton's journey, anyway — ended earlier this month at the foot of a small descent of stairs from the stage to the arena floor in a bear hug embrace with ISU President Larry Dietz. His family wept in their seats.

"Here is what I remember thinking (about that moment)," Shelton said. "I'm here. I've done it. Thank goodness, I've done it."

Against long odds.

In January 2008, Alex Shelton, a 2006 graduate of Dunlap High School, was in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, attending a leadership conference with other members of his Phi Kappa fraternity at ISU. Shelton, 20 at the time, was a sophomore at the Normal university. On the third night of his stay, he sleepwalked from his bed, scrambled improbably over a balcony railing onto the hotel roof and then stepped into thin air falling head first onto concrete.

He remembers none of the accident, or much of the months that followed.

Rescue workers in Mexico struggled to stabilize him enough at the scene to get him to a hospital. His parents, Tammy and Mike Shelton, flew to Mexico the next day in a dark panic. Doctors said he had a 10-percent chance of living — less than those low odds of ever walking, talking, thinking or behaving like the old Alex Shelton ever again.

The Sheltons were able to get Alex back to Peoria by air ambulance a little more than a week after the fall. He stayed in a succession of rehab hospitals, but didn't get back home until June. His recovery was just getting started.

Shelton had to learn to walk, talk, read, retain, study and learn almost from scratch. And not necessarily in that order. Determined to get restarted in an academic pursuit, he tried taking an online course offered by Illinois Central College shortly after returning home.

"It was tough," Alex Shelton said during a recent interview in the family home in the Lake of the Woods subdivision in Far North Peoria.

"We found out then that we were a little bit jumping the gun," said Tammy Shelton, filling the gaps in her son's thought.

"It was too ambitious," said Alex.

"Too soon," said Tammy.

"Way too soon," said Alex. " OK, yeah, I need to rethink what I was doing."

It would take another four years before Alex Shelton was ready to re-enter the classroom.

"I was going to ICC and obtained my associates degree in arts and sciences in 2013," Alex Shelton said. "In 2014 I went back to ISU."

After his injury, Alex Shelton decided that when he got back to the university he would switch his major from psychology to speech pathology. After his first phonetics and anatomy classes, Shelton changed his mind again.

"I wanted to get into speech pathology in order to help people like I got help," he said. "But I changed back to psychology because speech was hard as hell. It really was."

Shelton lived on the first floor of the university's tallest dormitory. He lived alone. An assistant helped him to class.

It took a while for Tammy Shelton's apprehension to abate.

"It was very worrisome, it really was," she said.

"I'm sorry," Alex said, as he often does.

"I had a lot of disability concerns and the school really helped me feel a lot better about it — whatever he needs we'll get it for him, they said. It was so nice to know there was somebody there that cared and they kept in touch with me. That was comforting. I knew it would be a struggle for him, but I've said it a million times, how determined he is and if he sets a goal.

"I'm going to do it," Alex Shelton said. "I'm going to get it done."

"He's always going to put his best foot forward. He always has. He just has that mindset," she said.

"Thank goodness I do have that mindset, otherwise I'd be dead, right," he said.

"Well, no," she said.

"But I'd be in a wheelchair right now," he said.

Shelton's grade point average fell from the perfect 4.0 he earned in the semesters before the accident to a graduation average of 2.5. It's evidence of how hard he had to work to earn the grades.

Shelton received an A in Valeri Farmer-Dougan's Psychology 233, Operant Behavior class. He performed so well, she kept him as a teaching assistant his final two semesters at school.

"The students train shelter dogs in the class with positive reinforcement techniques," Farmer-Dougan said in a phone interview. "Alex excelled at it. I feel that his own story makes him a sucker for the underdog, and that gave him empathy in working with the dogs, especially those that others had written off."

Alex is hoping to parlay his psychology degree into a job that will help pay for graduate school. His preference would be to work with dogs, children or both. Farmer-Dougan said he is more than up to the job.

"I adore Alex," she said. "His attitude. His positivity. I'll miss him greatly. I considered flunking him to keep him around, but that would have been pretty selfish."

Marketers of Illinois State University know a good story when they hear one. A video was made this past year about Alex's stay on campus and his determination to earn the degree he began nine years ago. It featured interviews with Tammy Shelton, speech pathologist Mandy Champion (also an ISU graduate) and with Alex. The video is well known to the ISU community; it was played on the scoreboard at every home football game. It ends with the triple pitch of the university's marketing mantra with the three speakers looking directly into the camera. One at a time, their heads filling the screen.

"State your passion," says Alex's speech pathologist.

"State your passion," says Alex's mom.

"State your passion," says Alex.

And the screen goes dark.


Source: (Peoria) Journal Star,


Information from: Journal Star,


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