Using only a cane, Ya-Wen Su crossed the stage at American University in May to receive a graduate degree diploma.
It was a hard-won victory. Not just earning the degree in art management, but being able to walk again.
The 29-year-old Taiwan native lost both legs last year after a drunk driver struck her as she rode a bicycle in Reston.
The avid skier and field hockey enthusiast spent months in rehabilitation at National Rehabilitation Hospital in Northwest Washington, learning to cope with prosthetic limbs and, eventually, how to walk again.
Now, a year and a half after the accident, Su is focused squarely on the future. She said she is applying for jobs in the District and looking forward to trading in her temporary metal prosthetics for a more anatomically realistic, comfortable -- and costly -- version.
It is a welcome evolution for the optimistic, cheerful woman who friends said never lost her zeal for living despite a traumatic injury.
One goal, she said only half joking, is to wear miniskirts again.
"She's doing splendidly," said Venice Malivadas, who was renting Su a room in her Chevy Chase home at the time of the accident and played host to Su's family during much of her recovery.
These days, Su gets around in a car that operates with hand controls and lives alone in an apartment in Silver Spring. She spends most of her time with friends, many from Taiwanese Presbyterian Church of Washington in Wheaton, who helped buoy her during the recovery.
"She's totally independent now, which I think is very heartwarming," Malivadas said.
At AU's annual award ceremony, Su was presented with the Trailblazer Award, given each year to a nontraditional student who serves as an inspiration to others while striving for academic, personal and professional growth.
"She's been an inspiration to so many people," said Christy Nichols, an international student adviser at AU. "We saw her go from no problem to being in the hospital to losing her legs to being in a wheelchair, and now she walks. That's pretty incredible."
Despite the physical challenges, Nichols said, "she's been able to continue her schooling and continue getting good grades."
Su was a certified nurse in Taiwan and came to Washington in 2002 to pursue an advanced degree.
She was biking with a friend in Reston on March 15 when she was struck by a Ford Explorer and pinned underneath. One leg was severed in the crash. Doctors battled for weeks to save the other, but fearing a bone infection, they decided to amputate.
The woman who drove the car that struck Su committed suicide hours after being released from police custody.
Just a month after the accident, Su was already talking about resuming the sports she loves. It's her hope to stay in Washington; she's eager to find a job in her field and the health insurance she needs to afford the prosthetics, which could cost up to $50,000. If no job is forthcoming, she said, she will return to Taiwan in December.
Today, Su can joke about her predicament, suggesting that sometimes it's good to walk outside with a cane, "because people become more polite," she said, laughing. "I like that."
-- Leef Smith