Special Feature: Commencement 2010

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Where There's a Wheel, There's a Way

A student with quadriplegia who never says ‘I can’t’ to receive master’s degree

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June 15, 2010

EVANSTON, Ill. --- In 2004 Northwestern University student Craig Yunker, a quadriplegic, sat in a hospital bed while doctors debated whether to amputate his foot after a cut grew severely infected. That same day, Christopher Reeves died of complications resulting from the same ailment.

"All I could think was: I've got what killed Superman," he recalled, thankful the infection cleared and no amputation was necessary. "Let's just say it was a bad day."

Six years later, with the support of faculty, classmates and mentors, Yunker prepares to graduate with a master's degree in counseling psychology from The Family Institute at Northwestern University. Yunker completed what is typically a three-year program in eight years with great success in every respect, according to his instructors.

"Craig's determination made us want to open ourselves to him," said Lenore Blum, Yunker's academic advisor and director emeritus of the counseling psychology program. "At times we broke rules and made exceptions, but he rewarded us by being an extraordinary student."

In addition to coursework, students in the program see multiple clients in a therapeutic capacity.

"Craig is an excellent clinician," said Kathy Bingham, his clinical supervisor at The Family Institute. "He cares deeply about his clients and invests much thought and reflection into how he can assist them."

After graduation, Yunker will work for the Regional Transit Authority (RTA) in Chicago implementing programs and policies that help disabled people use public transportation. He especially hopes his efforts will aid veterans, as his best friend is a doctor who currently is serving in Iraq.

He plans to continue mentoring people -- particularly adolescents -- because he says that while nothing makes his pain go away, working with teens makes it worthwhile.

For Yunker -- who employs a live-in, full-time caregiver -- each day is filled with challenges many people will never experience. Assignments take significantly longer to complete when every paper, email and clinician note must be typed one key at a time. Sitting all day can create serious and uncomfortable physical problems.

Yunker believes angels -- those in human form -- saved him on more than one occasion. He recalled the day he was outside at the back of The Family Institute on a crisp day, taking a 10-minute break between clients, when his wheelchair suddenly stopped working. Coincidentally, Dan, his wheelchair repairman -- who lives an hour away -- was only a block away then. He got the chair working again with two minutes to spare.

"As a wheelchair user, I've learned to never take the path of least resistance. It's almost always downhill," he joked.

"I've never heard him say, ‘I can't' or ‘I won't'," said Blum. "He was expected to complete the same work as everyone else, and though it may have taken longer, he did it."

Yunker, who comes from a family of teachers and mentors, says a desire to connect with people is in his blood. He heard about the Northwestern program in 2002 -- two weeks before the application deadline. He quickly took the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), completed the school's entrance test and submitted necessary materials. 

Upon admittance, however, he said he felt like a mutt who stumbled into the Westminster Dog Show. "I promptly fell flat on my face, because I was totally unprepared for the physical and mental challenges that were required to earn my degree. It was a long, hard process getting to where I am now."

"For all students, this program is emotionally and physically draining," said Blum. "He needed time to adjust to this demanding lifestyle, and we needed to learn how to best help him."

He was emphatic that he doesn't want his graduation to be a celebration of him and what he has accomplished. "Rather, it should be a recognition of the ways in which my ‘angels' have made it possible for me to become someone who can meet others' needs." Yunker intends to carry this same spirit into his work with the RTA when he starts his job in July.

Yunker's determination stems in large part from losing his father to cancer at age 15. Before his father passed away, Yunker promised to make his dad proud - a promise he takes seriously.  "I don't think I'm there yet," he said regarding his promise, "but I will never stop trying because it's an endless source of inspiration for me."

Yunker's accident happened 16 years ago when he led a mission trip in Jamaica. Running into the ocean, he tripped, hit his head on a sand dune and broke his neck. A state champion body-builder at the time, he recalls a very dark time in his life for many years following.

"I lost my relationship with my body," he said. "It was like the lights went out, and they were never going to be turned on again."

After spending years staring at the wall in his mother's basement, a television show about caged parrots prompted a change. He went back to school to receive an associate's degree and then graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with a bachelor's degree in business and computer science before coming to Northwestern.

"Craig reminds us there is huge diversity in terms of what others encounter in their daily lives," said Bingham. "Knowing him makes our environment richer."

When asked how he will feel on graduation day, Yunker replies with a smile, "I will feel proud to join the ranks of those that have come before me and enabled me to get this far."

Then adds, "I just hope the robe doesn't get caught in my wheel."