Against all odds after battling back from a life-threatening stroke, Liberty University graduate Austin Harrell proudly walked across the stage Thursday morning to receive his Associate of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies with a focus in business.
Harrell’s story with Liberty began almost nine years ago when, in July 2013, he was a few weeks away from leaving his home in Cary, N.C., to begin his freshman year on campus. A stellar high school soccer player, the young athlete was working out in his backyard when he suddenly suffered a massive stroke. He was rushed to his local hospital, where doctors informed his parents that he needed to be emergency airlifted to Duke if he was going to have a chance to survive.
Harrell underwent emergency brain surgery. The stroke had left him paralyzed on the right side of his body and unable to speak or communicate. He was diagnosed with aphasia, a language disorder caused by damage in a specific area of the brain that controls language expression and comprehension. He was in ICU for weeks while doctors were skeptical as to whether his parents would be able to care for him.
But over the next year and a half, Harrell went through physical therapy for four to five hours per day and hit many milestones in his recovery, including being able to walk a 3K only months after being paralyzed.
The American Heart Association has used Austin’s story to help people understand the signs of stroke.
In 2015, as part of his physical and cognitive therapy, Harrell enrolled in Liberty University Online Programs — taking one course at a time. Through the program, he gradually regained his ability to speak.
“Liberty University was always my first choice for college,” he said. “The Liberty Online program allowed me to take one course at a time to pursue my goal of graduating from Liberty, and I used the coursework to rebuild my language skills after my stroke.”
“We’re excited that he’s reached a goal that was long-coming,” said his mother, Susan Harrell. “We weren’t sure at the beginning how it was going to go, but we felt like the recovery of his language was going to be most meaningful if he had something to work on, a goal that he was working toward.”
Though the stroke changed the original plans for his future, Harrell said he has seen the Lord’s hand work in powerful ways, something that he holds on to throughout the uncertainties of his life.
“Since my stroke, I have been through many tough and challenging times,” he said. “I have had to trust that God has a plan for my life and a reason for all things. He has taught me to listen to His Word, especially when there are obstacles in my path.”
“It took a lot of hard work over seven years to reach graduating with an associate’s degree from Liberty,” he added. “When you are working to recover abilities that you have lost, it is so important to have goals that you reach for. I took one step at a time, and now I have reached a tremendous milestone and can celebrate God’s faithfulness and the years of hard work.”
While taking online courses, Harrell was able to work at a coffee shop in his hometown. His story is part of the reason the nonprofit shop, Esteamed Coffee, opened; providing job opportunities to employees with speech language, vision and intellectual disabilities. For Austin it allows him to communicate with the public as part of his language recovery.
“Esteamed Coffee is a blessing from the Lord and has allowed me as a cashier to work on my communication and conversation skills,” Harrell said. “Esteamed Coffee’s mission is to provide job opportunities for those with differing abilities in a supportive work environment. I love my job because I can interact with customers, greet them with a smile, and help serve them a great cup of coffee.”
Harrell said he will continue to work at the shop while looking forward to whatever the Lord has for his future.
“I focused a majority of my selected coursework in business classes, so I hope to be able to find a position in a supportive company that will help train me in additional skills to be successful and make a difference for Christ in the business world.”