May 19, 2008
On Thursday, May 22, Landscape Architecture major Jeff Harris will don cap and gown to graduate with a group of friends and colleagues with whom he has spent innumerable hours envisioning elaborate, comprehensive, sustainable futures for towns and cities across the country and well beyond.
A little less than a year ago, the landscape of Harris’ own future — and the possibility that he would see the end of this part of his journey at his friends’ side — changed dramatically. While celebrating the 4th of July holiday with friends in North Carolina, a beach accident rendered the 24-year-old a quadriplegic.
For some, that might have been the end of a promising career as a graphic designer and landscape architect. For Harris, his resolve unwavering, he set about determining new paths to achieve his goals.
“In the beginning, I was worried that I would lose everything — who I was, what I was about. In some respects I have, but it’s not going to change my life,” he said. “I’m not going to change my aspirations for success because of this — you just change how you approach it. You find new ways to accomplish tasks — I know that if I have the desire and the will and I keep working at it, I will eventually accomplish everything I want to do.”
Already hard at work at Orsatti Associates in King of Prussia, Harris plans to continue on at the landscape architecture firm upon graduation, “and see where my strengths lie.”
“Will it be graphic design work or computer work; we’ll see. Initially after the accident, I was afraid of how it would impact my ability to work — so much of my work was hand drawn that it made me a little nervous about how I would be perceived,” he said. “For those that didn’t know me, how would they perceive what I could and couldn’t do? I think my strengths are in public speaking and presentation. I’m exploring the possibility of pursuing a master’s degree in graphic design to further my skills and show myself and potential employers that ‘this is what I can do.’”
Harris is under no illusion that the road ahead will be simple in the coming years, but with a strong support system of family, friends, professors, mentors, and fellow students, he knows he’ll never be facing it alone.
“The accident fully severed my spinal cord — my mobility, my strength, just re-learning simple tasks has been a long process, but I’m greatly improved and will always get better. The students on campus, as well as my mentor, A.J., who was injured about 14-years-old, have been terrific,” he said. “Life will never be easy, but I see where I can get to, it just takes a lot of time. The first thing for me is getting back to being a little more independent and getting back to work — I’ll be taking a driving course in the near future.”
Harris said one of his primary goals through his rehabilitation was returning to the classroom to finish his degree program.
“It’s a beautiful campus and one of the best programs in the state. It allowed me to combine everything that I wanted to do as a career,” he said. “I really wanted to get back to Ambler and graduate with my class. They’ve helped so much this semester, even if it was just things like filling up a water bottle or helping me in my chair.”
Whereas in other environments, where it might feel uncomfortable to ask for assistance, “I’ve worked with these students for countless hours, seven days a week for three years — I didn’t even have to ask.”
“I would say I’m able to do about 70 percent of the course work that I used to be able to do — and being able to work up to that percentage is far, far beyond where I was a just few months ago,” he said. “I used to live down the street; I’d be on campus from 9 a.m. to 3 a.m. That’s something that is physically impossible for me to do now — I can’t call my family to come pick me up at 3 a.m. That’s been tough because of the standard of work that I place upon myself.”
During his time at Ambler, Harris’ accomplishments have been remarkable. In 2007, he was one of the student leaders on the Department of Landscape Architecture and Horticulture’s Best of Show-winning Philadelphia Flower Show Exhibit “The Poetic Landscape of Ireland.” That same year, Harris received the Wilmer Atkinson Memorial Scholarship, a 2007 Flower Show Commendation, and the Landscape Architecture and Horticulture Faculty Special Contribution Award, which recognizes, when merited, “a student’s outstanding contribution to the improvement of the department.”
His “standard of work” has by no means diminished. In 2008, in addition to being named a Temple University President’s Scholar, he received the Landscape Architecture and Horticulture Faculty Award and the American Society of Landscape Architects Student Achievement Award of Honor. He’s also continuing to hone his craft, learning the ins and outs of Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator “to develop a style that works for me to convey my thoughts and ideas.”
“The class, the faculty, the administration on campus have been incredibly helpful and accommodating. I would not be able to do this without them,” Harris said. “The faculty have been great. I think they know how dedicated I am to the campus and the program and that I am working as hard as I can; in turn they’ve gone out of their way to work with me to ensure that I graduate on time. I can’t think of too many places that are like that — you are never just a face in the crowd here.”
Harris has no intention of ever being a face in the crowd as he seeks to help raise awareness about spinal cord injury.
In February, the Philadelphia Curling Club, of which he and he father, Steve Harris, are members, held a 28-hour “curlathon,” which raised more than $35,000 on Harris’ behalf for the National Transplant and Spinal Cord Injury Assistance Fund.
“In addition to making this an annual event, we’d like to make the clubhouse and the ice accessible to wheelchairs,” he said. “There is wheelchair curling. In fact, curling is one of the few sports that someone in my position can do. I’m hoping that the curlathon will one day incorporate wheelchair curling.”
For others facing a similar journey, Harris’ advice is simple, yet crucial.
“The hardest part is what you face mentally, the internal struggle. Keep yourself busy, keep yourself focused,” he said. “I’ve met people that just kind of gave up. They spent years waiting for something to happen when, truly, you have to go out and make it happen. If you work hard enough, you can accomplish anything!”