On August 30, 2010 Stephen Merrill walked onto BYU’s campus as a newly minted freshman. On April 28, 2017, Merrill, like most students, will leave BYU a little differently. But unlike most students, Merrill’s transformation includes overcoming major physical challenges.

Merrill began his academic career at BYU just like any other student – excited and eager for the learning and social opportunities that lie ahead. Near the end of his freshman year, Merrill and his friends went to a local trampoline gym to stave off finals stress.

“I jumped into one of the foam pits from one of the higher points at the gym. I went through [the foam] and hit my head on the bottom of the pit. Instantly I knew something was wrong – I couldn’t move at all.”

Merrill suffered a C-5 spinal cord injury that resulted in quadriplegia – paralysis of all four limbs and the torso. After months of full-time therapy, Merrill decided to enroll in a single summer term class. Little by little, he was able to add more classes and eventually regained his status as a full-time student.

Merrill’s adjustment to life as a student with quadriplegia didn’t happen overnight. And it certainly wasn’t easy. Merrill recalls feeling overwhelmed and insecure – especially when it came to asking people for help. He credits family and friends for making things possible. This April – just six years after his accident – Merrill will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in Actuarial Science and a master’s degree in Applied Statistics. The beginning of Merrill’s master’s degree program proved to be his most challenging time at BYU. Not only was he a full-time student for the first time since his accident, but the learning and homework required of him took extra effort and time. He had to rely on classmates for notes, and the homework required him to use a writing splint – a slow and laborious process.

“There were definitely times where I felt like all I ever did was homework,” Merrill said. “I had to accept that I wouldn’t be getting top grades like I was used to. There were definitely some late nights where I thought, ‘How am I going to do this?’”

But even in his discouragement and struggles, Merrill's daily interactions continue to inspire those around him.

"You can't spend much time with Stephen and not gain a more appropriate view of what really matters," said Gilbert Fellingham, professor and graduate coordinator in Statistics. "He is an exceptional young man and we will miss having him around the department." 

Merrill’s advice to BYU students that struggle with unpredictability and loss in life is to identify the things that they’re able to do and do those things well. He suggests taking pride in the things that you can do and not worrying about the things you can’t do or were expecting to do.

“There are plenty of things that make life difficult and get me down, and it's hard not being able to do anything about them,” said Merrill. “But I find happiness in doing well with what I have and appreciating the small things in life.”

Read more about Merrill’s journey on his blog.

Writer: Amanda Chase
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