LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – Earning your Ph. D. is no easy feat. However, accepting your diploma after a life altering injury adds another layer of accomplishment.           

One Arkansas man is proving, with the right amount of determination and support, great things are achievable.

The best thing about a picture is that it never changes. Life, on the other hand, does.

Forty-seven-year-old Jon Wilkerson knows that all too well.           

In June of 2006, while living in Tacoma, Washington, Wilkerson fell off his mountain bike and broke his neck. For 18 hours, he laid, unable to move. As a physical therapist, he knew immediately what had happened.

“I had accepted my fate at the moment of the accident,” Jon Wilkerson said.           

For the next six months, Wilkerson recovered in a hospital bed, while coming to terms with the reality that his life would forever be different.

“It’s called C5 quadriplegic. The fifth vertebrae in my neck was fractured and burst. It pushed bones into my spinal cord causing damage to the nerve,” Wilkerson said.

Without the use of his hands, or basically any feeling below his neck, Wilkerson knew his career as a physical therapist was over, but he also knew this:

“Life changed and opportunities were presented to me, and I was able to capitalize on those,” Wilkerson said.

One of those opportunities was to get his PHD.

“It had always been a long-term goal to go a little bit farther, but I worked too much to put life on hold,” he said.

In 2014, Wilkerson enrolled at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. With the help of classmates like Clare Brown, he pushed forward on a new path to becoming a researcher, navigating barriers along the way and inspiring others.

“He’s unable to type, unable to plug in a jump drive. The things that we have to be able to do on a day-to-day basis as researchers, he has had to learn how to adapt and overcome some of those things,” said Dr. Clare Brown, Assistant Professor and Vice-Chair for Education in the UAMS College of Public Health.

Wilkerson credits a lot of that to the advance of technology, utilizing voice to text and a stylus and iPad to complete his work. He also evaluated hundreds of millions of records for his dissertation, all by voice command.

“It’s not as good a method as word processing as is a good pair of hands, but its adequate,” Wilkerson said. “Speech recognition often doesn’t like my southern accent, but we worked together for the common good to get things done.”

“He has overcome a lot and taught us a lot. It’s incredible what he’s accomplished,” Brown said.

Those accomplishments were celebrated by a crowd of hundreds at the Barton Coliseum in Little Rock on Saturday, as Wilkerson accepted his diploma.

Wilkerson said he hopes to get a job working as a researcher at UAMS.