A mother who attended every class with her quadriplegic son as he sought his MBA received an honorary degree herself from the same university.
After her son Marty O’Connor’s accident left him paralyzed from the shoulders down, Judy O’Connor relocated from Florida to California to help him fulfill a dream: getting his MBA. The former teacher accompanied her son to every class at Chapman University in Orange County, taking notes for him and even raising his hand when he had questions.
Her dedication did not go unnoticed: When Marty received his MBA this spring, Chapman’s Argyros School of Business and Economics awarded Judy, too.
“I was so filled with pride for Marty’s accomplishment and was very touched that both the university and my son had decided to honor me in that way,” Judy says.
TWO YEARS IN PHYSICAL THERAPY
Marty O’Connor was living in Newport Beach, California in 2012, spending most of his days surfing, skimboarding, and biking with his friends. A packaging consultant for Tricorbraun, his career and life were going great.
Then, in August that year, he had an accident. After a long day out in the heat, his body was dehydrated. He says he was sitting at the top of a staircase, eating food and trying to refuel, when he stood up and his body gave out. He fell down the staircase — and when he woke up, he was paralyzed from the shoulders down.
O’Connor spent two years, five days a week, in physical therapy. By the time his body was in a better place, he says, he was struggling mentally. He needed an intellectual challenge.
“I decided to add professional value to myself and pursue an MBA,” he says. “I was not sure how I could fare in the program, given my limitations. I was sort of running into it blind.”
GETTING AN MBA, WITH MOM’S HELP
O’Connor, now 29, decided to stay in Orange County and get his MBA at Chapman University. He relied on his competitive instincts to help him overcome the many challenges he faced. “The goal at first was survival,” he says. “It wasn’t until I got into the program that I realized I was in my element, and could make my adversity my advantage.”
Still, O’Connor faced uncounted obstacles. Paralyzed, he wasn’t able to do basic things like take notes or write answers on tests. He was going to need help. And that’s when his mother, Judy, a retired elementary school teacher, relocated from Florida to California to help him.
“It was a no-brainer,” Judy says. “I am a teacher, but my own child needed me, and I needed to be there for him. My husband stayed in California initially after Marty’s accident, and as soon as we could make it work, I came across the country to be there as his caregiver.”
ATTENDING MBA CLASSES TOGETHER
Judy attended every class with Marty for the two years of his MBA. She attended tutoring sessions and group study sessions. She took notes for him. She raised her hand in class when he had questions. And she wrote his answers down on tests.
“It was actually very interesting, and I enjoyed being there,” she says.
For Marty, getting an MBA often felt like a boot camp. “I feel that it pushed me to my limit time and time again, and it was up to me whether or not I would quit or I would fight to keep moving forward. On a daily basis it challenged my perseverance, stamina, and intellect,” he says.
But it was an opportunity to exhaust a lot of his built-up competitiveness, and he says he realized early on that he wanted to not only meet the challenges of an MBA, but excel at them. All the while, he had his mother’s help.
“It wasn’t just all of the hours on campus and in class, in fact most of the hard work was done at home. We had a ton of late nights and early mornings,” he says.
‘SHE WAS THERE EVERY STEP OF THE WAY’
So when graduation rolled around this year, he wanted to recognize the time and effort she put into him and his MBA. “She was there every step of the way and with her help I was able to do extremely well,” Marty says. “It wouldn’t be right for me to receive all the accolades and recognition, she deserved every bit as much as I did.”
He didn’t want her efforts to go unnoticed, so he asked the university if his mother could be awarded an honorary degree. The provost, dean, and faculty senate agreed, and kept the secret until the graduation ceremony.
After an unsuspecting Judy pushed her son across the stage last week to accept his degree and take pictures, her honorary degree was announced over the loudspeaker.
Especially touching, she says, was to see their family and all of Marty’s classmates, who they had spent so many hours with, standing to recognize the moment.
“I was really choked up,” she says. “I was totally shocked. I never expected it.”
‘YOU WILL FIND STRENGTHS YOU NEVER KNEW YOU HAD’
Now that Marty has graduated, he will be working for an action sports and entertainment startup called DIVERTcity, founded by his old college roommate. The mission of the organization is to use the values you learn through action sports to help empower individuals and transform communities.
“It is perfect for me,” he says, “because it combines my passion for action sports as well as philanthropy. At first I will be handling corporate sponsorships, and later on I plan to move into business development once the organization is operational.”
Meanwhile, Judy will stay on as Marty’s caregiver. If he has an assistant at work, she may return to tutoring.
“Both Marty and I hope that someone out there who is struggling with any type of catastrophic injury can be inspired to gather the courage to begin their journey to reimagine their future,” she says. “You may have to be creative and do things differently than you did before, but in the process, you will find strengths that you never knew you had, and that will make it all worthwhile.”