Austin Whitney is walking proof that dreams do come true.
Paralyzed from the waist down since a 2007 drunk driving accident, he had worked hard to graduate on time –and with honors — from the University of California at Berkeley.
That was reason enough to celebrate. But nothing compared to how he accepted his diploma on Saturday.
Pressing a button on his walker, Whitney rose to his feet. Then, with the flick of a switch, his legs moved across the stage at his commencement.
The journey lasted seven steps. Halfway through, he glanced over to the crowd and saw 15,000 people cheering in a standing ovation.
“It really was beyond my wildest dreams,” Whitney said Sunday night. “I’m still decompressing … it really was overwhelming.”
Whitney was able to move thanks to an “exoskeleton” designed by Berkeley mechanical engineering professor Homayoon Kazerooni and a group of mostly graduate students.
Whitney’s feat is pretty remarkable considering that a lot of people would have been mentally handicapped after going through a devastating accident.
Whitney graduated from high school in May 2007 with a 4.0 GPA, sporting a bright smile and seemingly brighter future.
But his life changed two months later, on the night of July 21. After having a few drinks with friends, Whitney got behind the wheel of his car and then got in a horrific crash.
His best friend almost died, with doctors forced to remove his spleen and treat a fractured vertebra in his neck, according to a public letter from St. Margaret’s released soon after the crash. Whitney suffered a broken back, and his spinal cord was instantly severed — leaving him paralyzed from the waist down.
“I did it to myself,” Whitney said. “I was consumed by self-hatred. But I realized I had two choices: I could live in the past and be filled with self pity … (or) face the adversity in my life, not let this cover my goals and dreams and aspirations.”