Edgar Rico was 24 when his life changed forever.
It wasn’t graduating from college or starting a new career that made the difference; it was a car accident that broke his neck and left him paralyzed from the neck down.
An avid athlete who played baseball and soccer, Rico was told by doctors that he would never be able to do anything but lie in a bed. Unwilling to accept this prognosis, he refused to feel sorry for himself and instead fought for the opportunity to live a normal life.
“I had to find ways how to live my new life,” said Rico, a Master of Social Work student at the USC School of Social Work. “Getting around and doing basic things that seem easy was a challenge. But I managed to find ways to deal with my disability. I wasn’t going to let anyone tell me what I could or couldn’t do.”
Rico’s first order of business was to regain feeling and movement where his doctors had told him he couldn’t. After intense physical therapy, he was able to regain partial movement in his arms one year after the accident.
About six months later, Rico, who had previously worked as a mechanic before his injury, enrolled in junior college to embark on a path to USC.
Going back to school posed logistical challenges, but Rico was determined to get through them. During his first semester of junior college, his mother pushed him to class in a manual wheelchair and assisted him with his class work. It only took him one semester to adjust, as he was able to navigate himself and handle his own coursework the very next term.
“That’s when I started to see hope in life again,” said Rico, who is still unable to move his fingers. “Going back to school, I was focused and never gave up. So no matter what challenges are put before you, face them and try, because if you try, everything is possible.”
Although he had not attended college before his injury, Rico saw purpose in what he was learning and later became inspired by sociology courses while studying at California State University, Los Angeles (CSULA). Rico then decided to pursue a master’s degree in social work to help others unable to help themselves. Just as he was able to overcome his obstacles, he wants to bring about change and social justice by improving the quality of life and well-being of his clients.
“While at CSULA, I learned about the many experiences an individual faces when they are left with minimal or no resources to get ahead in life,” Rico said. “This gave me an understanding on why and how people are being oppressed, making me want to seek a career in social work to bring about change and help people.”
As a former athlete, Rico was selected to receive a Swim With Mike scholarship, awarded to physically challenged athletes, to attend the School of Social Work.
“I wanted to attend the USC School of Social Work because it is ranked one of the top schools for social work,” he said. “I know by attending USC, I will be equipped with the knowledge and experience to enhance the lives of individuals from many walks of life.”
Today, Rico said he can use his arms fairly well and is able to take notes with a special writing device. Despite still not being able to use his fingers, he has no trouble using a computer for his coursework and is able to get to school using Access Paratransit, a special shared-ride service for people with disabilities in Los Angeles County.
Adjunct lecturer Evangelina Reina met Rico during the school’s Community Immersion program in 2012 and promptly saw his commitment to learning and helping his peers.
“I admire his ability to see the positive in himself,” she said. “Edgar has not allowed his circumstances to stop him from reaching his goals despite the barriers he faces. He shares his story to teach others, not to evoke sympathy.”
Hector Cendejas, president of the school’s Student Organization Board, invited Rico to be one of the main speakers at a USC community event for at-risk youth to share his story about overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds to attend college.
“There are many qualities that I admire about Edgar: He’s courageous, resilient, bold, optimistic, good-spirited, caring, kind, strong and humble,” Cendejas said. “He will be an amazing social worker — someone who will empower and inspire others to follow their dreams and not let anyone bring them down. For me, Edgar is my hero, my role model.”
Despite spending more than a decade in a wheelchair, Rico is still physically active. Unwavering in his hopes to one day walk again, he works out three times a week. Along with Robert Scott, another disabled student at USC, Rico is currently working to get the first officially recognized adaptive recreational club on campus for students who are physically challenged.
“One of the biggest obstacles I’ve had was accepting the fact that my life would be different,” he said. “It took years to gain that confidence that life could continue despite my disability. Yet I was determined to get my life back no matter what obstacles or challenges were put against me.”