What it’s like to earn an MBA side-by-side: Mother acts as son’s aide after spinal cord injury

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Marty O’Connor and his mom Judy. Photograph by John Cizmas

After Orange resident Marty O’Connor suffered a spinal cord injury, his mom, Judy, helped him attend business school at Chapman University. At Marty’s suggestion, Chapman awarded Judy a surprise honorary MBA at his graduation in June.

Marty O’Connor: I was always an athlete—a top snowboarder and volleyball player at the University of Colorado and a surfer. And I kept that competitive spirit when, on Aug. 12, 2012, I fell on a staircase and became a quadriplegic. I have a C3-4 “incomplete” central spinal cord injury. After years of dedicated physical therapy, I regained some mobility, but my body still feels like it’s stuck in cement. I have feeling everywhere, more in my lower body and back, but my arms and hands don’t move. No matter—I needed to compete. So I applied to the MBA program at Chapman University.

Judy Stepanek O’Connor: But he couldn’t jump in and out of a car or write. So I quit my job and moved back here from Florida and went to school with him—every day for two years.

Marty: In class, when I wanted to participate in discussions, my mom would raise her hand. The professors knew and would call on me.

Judy: I told everyone that I was his assistant. I never introduced myself as his mom. We wanted to keep it professional. The other students eventually caught on, and a couple of professors would even invite me to take part in the class. But I wouldn’t. Every day for two years of his MBA program, we spent nearly all day together. In class three to six hours a day, three or four times a week. Driving to and from school. Then studying together.

Marty: With voice dictation software and my computer, iPad, and phone, I had some independence.

Judy: After I got him set up at his desk, on his computer, I got a break. He could click through things with his mouth-stick stylus.

Marty: But when it came down to it, the software’s not perfect, and I couldn’t use it in the middle of a classroom. And there were tons of projects. I needed hands to put together presentations and study guides.

Judy: He’d need notes pulled out, things spread all around him. Also, if he was studying for a test, and it was econ or statistics, something with heavy-duty math, we were together for hours at the table.

Marty: She’s very detail-oriented in note taking—better than I am. That’s one reason why she actually made me a better student, filling the gaps in the things I lacked, like organization.

Judy: I knew exactly where everything was—how he liked things done. I experienced his struggles firsthand.

Marty: We just got on this scary same page where she knew what I was thinking, and I knew what she was thinking. We became a great team.

Judy: People have asked us if spending so many hours day after day was irritating, but it wasn’t. In fact, I found it really interesting. In college, I was a business undergrad. And I liked being in college again, going to classes.

Marty: My injury was a heck of a way to bring our family together. I was doing great in my career before I got injured—traveling the world, closing big deals. But I think, with my mom’s help, I was able to achieve a lot more in my chair than I was able-bodied.

Judy: Watching him grow intellectually and personally during his MBA program was very heartening for me. I just look at him now, with the awards he won and the knowledge and confidence he’s gained, and say, “He is going to succeed, whatever he wants to do.” Yeah, he’s got a lot of barriers, and we’re going to support him, but he’s going to be fine.—Roy M. Wallack

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