In January, Luis Jovel Jr., center, and his family enjoy an early celebration of his 19th birthday before he heads back to college at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His mother, Norma, left, worried about his ability to care for himself when he chose a school far from their Gaithersburg home, but Junior says that although it hasn’t been easy, he likes “the challenge — and the freedom.” (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Luis Jovel Jr. doesn’t remember the accident. He doesn’t remember the day before or the day after, either. He remembers four days earlier, watching his sister get ready for the prom while he shot hoops with a buddy in the driveway.

And he remembers the following month, when the 12-year-old learned that he had been hit by a car driven by an off-duty cop while he was crossing the street on his way to a friend’s house. He remembers being told that he had brain and neck injuries and that the doctors weren’t sure that he would ever walk again. He remembers being determined that he would.

But what he remembers most is that after eight months in the hospital, he was ready to go home. The boy everyone calls Junior couldn’t move his arms or legs, but he wanted to be there for Christmas with his older brothers and sister. To start the second half of seventh grade in January and to finally be back among his friends, the ones he had been missing so much.

He wheeled into school excitedly, and at first it seemed that his classmates had missed him, too. Everyone was so happy to see him.

But soon it became clear that they didn’t know how to be his friends anymore. They didn’t know how to act around their football-loving pal who now could barely speak and was constantly accompanied by an aide because he could no longer walk or feed himself. So they kept their distance. And then he did, too.

“I was just so timid,” says Junior, now 19. “Even with my old buddies. I just didn’t know what to say. And it was hard for me to say it, especially in loud places — and that’s where all the fun is, really.”

He stopped going to the cafeteria altogether, embarrassed to have people see his aide feeding him. He had always been a little shy, but now he stopped speaking during class entirely.

Teachers hadn’t known what to expect from Junior, so they put him in easy classes and treated him with kid gloves — one even gave him a quiz with answers on the back. He refused to look and did the work himself.

“I got an A on it,” he said during an interview at his parents’ home in rural Gaithersburg. “I thought, ‘I’ll show them.’ I didn’t want to be, like, this special kid. I just wanted to do what I did — what I’d been doing.”

But actually, what he’d been doing was slacking off. “I was always good at school if I tried,” he says. “But in sixth grade I started not focusing.”

After the accident, though, his attention returned to the books — to the one area where he was determined not to be left behind. So he did his work, kept to himself and went home to the embrace of his family, especially that of his mother, Norma, who bathed, fed and dressed him, just as she had when he was an infant.

At Clarksburg High School, things started to get a little easier. He joined a Unified Sports team that combined students with disabilities and those with healthy bodies in a bocce league. He met another quadriplegic who didn’t seem to care what people thought of his wheelchair.

“I’m like, ‘Why can’t I do that? Why can’t I be like that?’ ” he recalls. Inspired, he started talking more and allowing his aide to feed him in front of other students.

And he began thinking about college. He was a member of the National Honor Society who excelled at math and science and dreamed of becoming an engineer.

“Okay, you can go to Montgomery College,” his mom remembers telling him. “But he said, ‘No, I’m working very hard. I want to go to university.’ ”

Before his senior year, guidance counselors gave Junior a list of four colleges known for accessibility, and his parents, who had emigrated from El Salvador, took him to visit each of them. The last was the farthest away — the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Norma agreed to the visit, thinking that her son would never go there. “It’s too far,” she says.

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But he loved it. And if he got accepted to the program for students with disabilities, he would have the help of an aide for seven hours each day and one on call for emergencies — a dropped remote control, a 2 a.m. bathroom visit — the rest of the time.

So he wrote an essay, sent in his test scores — and prayed.

And in the fall, his parents made the 11-hour drive to drop him off at his new dorm room in Illinois. It was hardest on Norma. “I felt like they were not going to take care of him,” she says.

But as his parents lingered long after the room was set up, Junior whispered a request in his father’s ear: Take his sobbing mother home. He was ready.

“I was scared, nervous,” he admits. “But I was way more excited — for the college experience and doing more stuff without my parents there. Being more independent. I don’t need to worry about them cramping my style.”


Junior relishes his independence at school, including the freedom to grow facial hair and stay up late and bond with his fellow students, forging new friendships to replace the old ones he lost. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

The accident that befell him when he was 12 cost Junior the use of his arms and legs. Rehabilitation sessions exhaust him, but he pushes himself harder than the therapists do, he says. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

He could stay up as late as he wanted, grow facial hair and go out whenever he chose. But he also had to manage his schedule, navigate around campus and figure out how to restock the toothpaste and mouthwash when it ran low.

“It wasn’t easy, but I just loved it. I liked the challenge — and just that freedom,” he says.

And the greatest part was the friendships. Like any freshman, he has forged deep bonds during late-night rap sessions, mostly with the other guys in his program.

“We don’t really care about our disabilities,” he says. “We just horse around and joke, say whatever. We just hang out, play video games, play chess. It’s fun.”

And of course there are the girls, a riddle he’s still trying to unwrap. “I’m too scared sometimes — as in, most of the time,” he says. But the engineering major does have a strategy: Make it a numbers game. “If you only have your eyes on one, it’s probably going to be a no. You’ve got to have your eyes on a lot, so when you finally get there and she says no, you can be like, ‘Oh, there’s another one.’ ”

Despite his innate shyness, he has learned that he can’t wait for people to speak to him. So Junior speaks first and tries to get a laugh as quickly as possible.


Junior shares a laugh with his dad, Luis Jovel Sr.. at home in Gaithersburg. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

“If I can make someone laugh, then they can start to look past my disability and the wheelchair,” he explains. “And they start to talk to me. It kind of opens them up.”

He was disappointed with his 3.1 grade-point average first semester and thinks that this semester — physics, chemistry, calculus 3 — will be even tougher. But he knows that he can do it.

“I’m not the smartest person, but I work hard,” he says. And for that determination, he credits the accident. “It’s made me better, in every way. I’m more focused now. I know what to do.”

He spent his winter break putting in exhausting eight-hour days at a rehabilitation center in Baltimore. The physical therapists push him, he says, but he pushes himself harder.

“I’m happy with the way I am,” he explains, “But I always want more.”

“I want to walk. I want to be the best engineer. I want to be the best person that I can.”

This Life is an ongoing series about the extraordinary lives of ordinary people. If you know someone whose story should be featured, e-mail ellen.mccarthy@washpost.com.