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Florida Atlantic University Grad Overcomes Paralysis to Earn MBA

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Scott Travis, South Florida Sun-Sentinel, December 12, 2008

As an able-bodied but unmotivated teenager, Ryan Gebauer didn't think he was cut out for college.

When an accident in 1995 left him paralyzed from the neck down, he doubted he would even finish high school.

But Gebauer, 30, has proven himself wrong time and time again. On Thursday, he accepted his master's degree in business administration from Florida Atlantic University. He was one of about 2,200 students receiving degrees this week during FAU's fall commencement.

The audience gave Gebauer a standing ovation.

"Although I put in a lot of work, and it was very difficult at times, not only does it feel good to achieve something, but it has shown me that maybe I'm an inspiration to others," Gebauer said after the ceremony.

Gebauer, of Coral Springs, was goofing off with friends during the summer of 1995, just after his sophomore year in high school. He jumped 36 feet from a tree branch into a canal, landing head first in the water, injured his spinal cord and was hospitalized for six months.

The accident didn't affect his intellect or ability to learn, but Gebauer wasn't eager to go back to high school. He had struggled to make C's and assumed he would never finish. But he said his mother, Mary O'Reilly, encouraged him. He started taking classes in a homebound program one semester before returning to Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in the fall of 1996.

"Everyone knew me as a tall, 6-foot-2 prankster and troublemaker," he said. "Now I was a tall, 6-foot-2 paralyzed person. It was a huge difference. I learned who my true friends were. Those who were the same as me, troublemakers, they tended to give me the cold shoulder."

He took a peer counseling class with other high school students who faced struggles, including students who had been victims of sexual assault and suffered severe mental illness. Gebauer said he realized that there are people who have worse problems that he does and refused to feel sorry for himself. He has also become an active member of the community, speaking at schools and serving on a citizens committee for the city of Coral Springs.

"He's persistent, smart, has a great personality," Coral Springs Mayor Scott Brook said. "He's definitely an asset to our community."

At his mother's continued encouragement, Gebauer started attending college in 1998, first earning an associate's degree from Broward Community College. In 2004, he received a bachelor's degree at FAU, where he double-majored in criminal justice and political science. He first hoped to become a lawyer but later became interested in investing and pursued his MBA at FAU. He is waiting on final exam scores but expects to earn a 3.7 grade point average. He hopes to find a job and also plans to continue fighting for the rights of the disabled.

"It took a wake-up call like a devastating incident to give him a new insight on life and what his path should be," said Nicole Rokos, director of FAU's student disabilities office.

In May 2007, Gebauer suffered another setback his mother and primary caregiver died of a heart attack.

"Four years ago, my mom was there in the van with me and my grandmother going to and from graduation," he said. "Today there is a feeling of missing somebody."

Other family and friends and health aides have helped him with his day-to-day activities. Many were on hand Thursday to watch him receive his diploma and applaud how he has overcome obstacles.

"When somebody faces a situation like Ryan did, they can go in two directions. They can excel or they can give up," said his father, Rainer Gebauer. "He's chosen to have a strong work ethic and to live life to the fullest."


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