Posted May 21, 2008

Accident forces Ambler grad to take new path

Bachelor of science: landscape architecture

Landscape architecture major Jeff Harris will don cap and gown on May 22 to graduate with a group of friends and colleagues with whom has spent innumerable hours envisioning elaborate, comprehensive, sustainable futures for towns and cities across the country and well beyond.

A little less than a year ago, the landscape of Harris’ own future — and the possibility that he would see the end of this part of his journey at his friends’ side — changed dramatically. While celebrating the Fourth of July holiday with friends in North Carolina, a beach accident rendered the 24-year-old a quadriplegic.

For some, that might have been the end of a promising career as a graphic designer and landscape architect. But Harris set about determining new paths to achieve his goals.

“In the beginning, I was worried that I would lose everything — who I was, what I was about. In some respects I have, but it’s not going to change my life,” he said. “I’m not going to change my aspirations for success because of this — you just change how you approach it.”

Already hard at work at Orsatti Associates in King of Prussia, Harris plans to continue on at the landscape architecture firm upon graduation and to determine where his strengths lie.

Photo by James Duffy/Temple University
After a beach accident last July rendered him a quadriplegic, Jeff Harris was determined to return to the classroom to finish his degree program. On May 22, Ross will graduate with his friends and colleagues and will receive his bachelor of science in landscape architecture.

“Initially after the accident, I was afraid of how it would impact my ability to work — so much of my work was hand-drawn that it made me a little nervous about how I would be perceived,” he said. “For those that didn’t know me, how would they perceive what I could and couldn’t do? I think my strengths are in public speaking and presentation. I’m exploring the possibility of pursuing a master’s degree in graphic design to further my skills and show myself and potential employers that ‘this is what I can do.’”

The accident fully severed Harris’ spinal cord, and as a result he has had to relearn how to perform simple tasks. One of his primary goals through his rehabilitation was returning to the classroom to finish his degree program.

Harris is under no illusion that the road ahead will be simple in the coming years, but with a strong support system in place, he knows he won’t face it alone.

Harris, one of the student leaders on the Department of Landscape Architecture and Horticulture’s 2007 Best of Show-winning Philadelphia Flower Show exhibit, now hopes to raise awareness about spinal cord injury.

In February, the Philadelphia Curling Club, of which he and his father, Steve Harris, are members, held a 28-hour “curlathon,” which raised more than $35,000 on Harris’ behalf for the National Transplant and Spinal Cord Injury Assistance Fund.

“In addition to making this an annual event, we’d like to make the clubhouse and the ice accessible to wheelchairs,” he said, adding that he’d like to incorporate wheelchair curling into the event someday.

For others facing a similar journey, Harris’ advice is simple, yet crucial.

“The hardest part is what you face mentally, the internal struggle. Keep yourself busy, keep yourself focused,” he said. “I’ve met people that just kind of gave up. They spent years waiting for something to happen when, truly, you have to go out and make it happen. If you work hard enough, you can accomplish anything.”