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Spinal cord injury motivated CSUF grad student to pursue higher education

Cal State Fullerton graduate student Zack Collie never imagined he would attend college. Not one to think of himself as the academic type, he considered passing his high school classes to be “good enough,” and the Orange County native figured he would join the workforce after graduation.

That all changed on Memorial Day 2010 when Collie suffered a spinal cord injury that left him diagnosed as a C-4 quadriplegic. It was a moment that drastically changed the trajectory of his life and unexpectedly led him to CSUF’s campus to join the Titan community.

Collie vividly remembers May 31, 2010, almost like it was yesterday. After begging his parents to allow him to go to the beach with friends, the then 15-year-old high school freshman spent the day hanging out in the surf and sand.

Late in the afternoon, knowing that they were to be picked up soon, the teens headed to the water’s edge for one last swim. Collie recalls the ocean was cold that day, so as a wave approached the shore, he dove in headfirst.

Waiting for him right underneath the surface was a sandbar. Collie hit it with his head straight on and instantly broke his neck, losing all movement and sensation in his body. Face down in the water and unable to get a breath of air, he panicked.

“I thought I was literally going to die that day at 15 years old,” Collie said.

After his friends pulled him out of the ocean, Collie embarked on a long road of change and uncertainty. Bound to a wheelchair with paralysis in both his upper and lower body, the oldest of four children chose to homeschool for his sophomore year and worked to get back to Yorba Linda High School part time during his junior and senior years, intent on graduating with his classmates.

Collie did just that, “walking” across the stage with the help of his physical therapists in the spring of 2013. With his post-graduation options now limited, his mother encouraged him to consider attending college.

“After my accident happened, and all of my physical abilities got taken away, I had to make a decision to start using my brain more,” Collie said.

Cal State Fullerton was the perfect choice for Zack Collie, who earned his bachelor’s degree in 2018 and is set to earn his master’s in counseling this year. (Photo by Drew A. Kelley, contributing photographer)

With its proximity to home and its flat, wheelchair-friendly campus, CSUF became a clear choice. Collie threw all of his eggs into the Titan basket and applied. Not only was he accepted, but he was awarded a scholarship that made attending college within reach.

It took five years, but Collie earned his bachelor’s degree in Human Services in spring 2018. A summer class he took during his final undergraduate year called “Character and Conflict” became a fast favorite of his, and with the recognition that he still had full function of both his brain and voice, he decided to pursue a career in counseling.

“Ever since my injury, I knew I wanted to give back and help other people,” Collie said. “I just didn’t know how I could do that given my situation. Now I know that this is what I’m supposed to do.”

In fall 2018, Collie began CSUF’s masters in counseling program and is set to complete his graduate degree at the end of this year. Not only did CSUF allow him to find his passion, but the staff has been accommodating of his needs since day one, and the relationships he has developed with his professors have had a strong impact on his life.

“Everything just fell into place, and it’s been an amazing journey,” Collie said. “Over the years, I slowly fell in love with the school. I don’t think I would have (a college) education if I had not gone to Cal State Fullerton. I love the campus, I love the people, and I love being a Titan.”

Collie’s goals after graduation include becoming a licensed therapist and pushing himself to become as independent as possible. While he is still in a wheelchair full time, the 27-year-old has regained sensation in his body and some function in his arms. Additionally, he lives in his own apartment with a full-time aide and has an adaptive vehicle that allows him to drive.

In an effort to show others that life with a spinal cord injury can still be vibrant and fulfilling, Collie has his own YouTube channel, “Quadlife with Zack,” where he shares videos about his everyday life as a quadriplegic with his nearly 175,000 subscribers.

Twelve years have passed since the accident, and while the road ahead remains challenging, Collie is facing it with a smile on his face and gratitude in his heart. Changed, humbled and matured by his experiences, he acknowledges that he is closer to his family and stronger in his faith than ever and that CSUF is helping to make his future a reality.

“I truly believe that I’ve accomplished more in my life right now, at 27, than I would have accomplished in my entire life had my injury never happened,” Collie said. “I realize that God saved my life that day so I could help other people.”

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