Weeks before graduating high school, he was shot and paralyzed. 7 years later, he walked across the stage to accept his college degree

May 21, 2023, 11:00 AM

Khalil Watson uses an exoskeleton to stand and walk at his college graduation ceremony years after ...

Khalil Watson uses an exoskeleton to stand and walk at his college graduation ceremony years after he was shot and paralyzed from the neck down. (Sheltering Arms Institute via CNN)

(Sheltering Arms Institute via CNN)

Originally Published: 20 MAY 23 14:10 ET
Updated: 21 MAY 23 12:41 ET

(CNN) — Seven years ago, the chance to walk at graduation was stripped from Khalil Watson, a Virginia man who was paralyzed from the neck down after being shot weeks before finishing high school.

But with help from physical therapists and a robotic exoskeleton, Watson, 25, rose from his wheelchair this past week and walked across the stage to receive his first college degree as a crowd cheered him on.

“It felt great being able to experience graduation in person since I wasn’t able to do so in high school,” Watson told CNN. “It kind of felt like a dream in a way.”

On May 15, he earned an associate’s degree in pre-social work from Reynolds Community College in Richmond.

“Seeing the people that I impacted comment underneath the (social media) post of me walking across the stage is what made me realize it was reality,” he said.

Watson was shot in the neck while being robbed on May 26, 2016, about two weeks before his high school graduation ceremony, according to CNN affiliate, the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

The alleged shooter was found dead in an unrelated incident a week later, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

While Watson’s other classmates were attending prom and graduation, he was left hospitalized with a spinal cord injury.

Inspiration at the hospital

Watson remained in the hospital for about three months after the shooting, he said. During that time, he met with several social workers who inspired him to pursue the same career.

“Going through the things that I’ve experienced, I feel like I’d be able to easily connect with and understand individuals who have similar or worse situations than mine,” he said.

The recent college graduate said he intends to continue his education and pursue both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in social work.

Since walking across the stage, Watson said he’s reflected on the challenges he’s had to overcome.

In addition to late nights and early mornings he spent studying, Watson said some days he had to ride his chair about an hour to get to class since his family doesn’t have an accessible vehicle.

“I was left with two options – to either go back home and miss class, or get to school the best way I could,” he said. “So, I did just that.”

Watson shows that ‘anything is possible’

Doctors at the Sheltering Arms Institute, a Richmond-based physical rehabilitation hospital, have helped Watson since his 2016 injury, according to therapy services manager Christina Smith.

The facility provided him with the robotic exoskeleton he used at graduation.

Exoskeletons are wearable robotic devices that perform movements like walking for people with an injury or disease who lack voluntary movement, according to Smith.

“Initially, we worked on him being able to tolerate sitting up and holding his balance on his own,” Smith said in an email. “As he has pushed to get stronger, he can now transfer out of his chair on his own, manage eating and drinking and push a manual wheelchair.”

Watson spent about two weeks training to use the robotic exoskeleton with therapists’ help.

In a phone interview Thursday, the institute called Watson a “great inspiration.”

“Our vision is to reinvent rehabilitation for life beyond limits, and I really think that Khalil embodies that,” said Jenny Lankford, the institute’s marketing manager.

“He is such a great example to other people who may have physical disabilities, may be going through a hard time, that with today’s technology and a good attitude, anything is possible,” Lankford said.

Watson hopes his experience helps demonstrate that you can achieve any goal.

“Regardless of your circumstances, whatever you desire from life – go for it,” he said.

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Weeks before graduating high school, he was shot and paralyzed. 7 years later, he walked across the stage to accept his college degree