Navajo Woman Overcomes Adversity, Injuries To Earn 3 Degrees From ASU

By Rocio Hernandez
Published: Tuesday, May 12, 2020 - 7:10am
Updated: Tuesday, May 12, 2020 - 7:37am

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For 15 years, life has thrown Arizona State University grad Jessica Antonio one challenge after another, but she has never taken her eyes off of the finish line. 

She paid her way through college. She was injured in two accidents, one of which left her with limited mobility. Her most recent challenge: scrambling to get a laptop and internet so she could attend her classes after the coronavirus forced ASU and other universities to convert to online instruction. 

But this week, the 33-year-old Navajo woman graduated with three degrees in American Indian studies, business administration and nutrition.

Antonio said the support she felt from her mom and the rest of her family when she suffered a spinal injury motivated Antonio to keep going despite all of her struggles. 

“If they were going to fight for me and I was someone worth fighting for then you gotta fight for yourself,” she said.

Antonio graduated from Cienega High School in Vail, southeast of Tucson on May 25, 2005.

Antonio’s goal after graduation was to start working until a math teacher encouraged her to go college because she saw Antonio as an excellent student with the potential to earn scholarships to help pay for school since Antonio’s family afford it. 

“That was the first time someone that knew me believed in me,” Antonio said. 

Antonio’s father moved the family’s desktop into her bedroom so she could work on scholarship applications and gave her a stack of envelopes and stamps to use when she was ready to mail them off. 

"I must have done three scholarships a week because I was either going to [the University of Arizona] or ASU," she said. 

Jessica Antonio
Arizona State University
Jessica Antonio, 33, is graduating from ASU this week. She said one of the hardest lessons that she learned through this journey was asking for help.

But in 2008, Antonio was injured in a rollover accident. That was the same year the U.S. economy crashed. Antonio said her dad lost his job and Antonio decided to take a semester off so she could help her family pay their mortgage and bills. 

“It was hard during that time for my family,” she said. 

Antonio was in a second car accident in 2013, but this accident would take her longer to recover from. When she got out of her car, Antonio said she remembers feeling a sharp pain through her back and falling to her knees, but she was able to make it home. 

The next morning, however, she woke up paralyzed. 

“I think that's when I realized I am really hurt,” Antonio said. 

Antonio would later learn that she suffered a spinal cord injury. 

“It was dark times and that's an understatement for what I went through because it was pitch black and there was times where I thought of suicide as an option because I didn't want to be a burden to these people that were taking care of me,” she said. “I didn't want them to spend the rest of their lives taking care of me because they didn't sign up for that.”

After multiple hospital visits, physical therapy, spinal injections and acupuncture, Antonio regained the ability to walk, but her mobility is limited. 

She can’t carry a backpack on her back. She can’t haul water. She can’t walk for a long time or long distances. So when Antonio was finally ready to go back to school, she had to figure out she would get around. ASU’s Disability Resource Center provided her with a standing desk, gave her rides through campus and Antonio’s father even gave her a rolling bag like the kind professors use. 

"It doesn't make you weak or vulnerable. It just makes you human."
— Jessica Antonio on asking for help

“So when I first went back to school, a lot of people thought I was a professor,” she said. 

Antonio said one of the hardest lessons that she learned through this journey was asking for help. She encourages people to not be shy, and ask for help when they need it. 

"It doesn't make you weak or vulnerable,” Antonio said. “It just makes you human.”

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (En Español: 1-888-628-9454; Deaf and Hard of Hearing: 1-800-799-4889) or the Crisis Text Line by texting 741741.   

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