Story Update: Feature stories about HPU graduate Collin Smith and his companion Ernest Greene aired on ABC’s “World News with Diane Sawyer,” and on “Good Morning America.” View the coverage in the videos above.
Senior Collin Smith embodies a principle that Dr. Nido Qubein, HPU president, teaches in his freshman seminar: Your present circumstances don’t determine where you’ll go. They merely determine where you start.
Collin was a three-sport athlete in high school before a tragic car accident left him paralyzed from the chest down. It was the type of accident that can put an end to a teenager’s formal education.
“Only 5 percent of teens go back to school after an accident like that,” says Smith. “Only 1 percent go onto college, and less than that graduate.”
Despite the incredible hardship he endured, Collin’s desire to receive an education didn’t change. He toured several campuses but found the perfect environment at High Point University.
“My first visit to campus, I knew this is where I wanted to go,” says Smith. “There are so many people here who have impacted me; I’ve got a long list of people to thank.”
Smith is majoring in communication with minors in sports management and athletic coaching. His dream is to become a basketball coach, and he’s currently working toward that goal. To prepare for his career, Smith has been working with the HPU men’s basketball team.
“The coaches have allowed me to do a little bit of everything,” says Smith. “That’s something I don’t think I’d be saying at a different college.”
Smith says the coaches and the players have made him feel like he is, once again, back in the game.
“Being on a team was one of the best parts of being an athlete. I lost that when I got hurt, but the players and coaches have really made me feel like I’m on a team again,” says Smith.
“Collin was a tremendous asset to our team, assisting in both in practice and keeping special statistics during games,” says head basketball coach Scott Cherry. “He was only supposed to be helping out for a short period of time, but he ended up staying on for the whole season. His positive outlook helped all of us — our student-athletes and coaches — keep a positive outlook every day.”
His rigorous classes, long afternoon practices and game nights with the basketball team create a challenging schedule for any student. How does he do it all? Another important part of Smith’s inspiring journey is his equally inspiring friend, retired engineer Ernest Greene.
“We’re a team,” says Smith. “We’ve spent an average of 8 – 9 hours a day together, five days a week for the past seven and a half years.”
Greene was a member of Smith’s church when the teen was injured. The two had never met, but when Greene heard what had happened, he knew he had to help. He has been by Smith’s side through high school and college. He arrives at Smith’s house every day at 6 a.m., gets Smith out of bed and ready for the day, drives him to campus and takes notes for him in every class.
“I just do what needs to be done,” Greene humbly adds.
“There’s no way to describe him,” says Smith. “Everything I’ve done was possible because of him. He’s been like a second father and grandfather to me.”
The HPU community noticed a true bond between Collin and Ernest and welcomed it on campus.
“The university actually pays me to take notes for Collin,” says Greene. “The care they give students here, always ensuring that everyone succeeds – I’ve never seen that at a college before.”
“Ernest is a great man, but mostly he’s a faithful servant of God,” says Smith. “He’s also been a tremendous help in allowing me to move forward and to see that a lot of things are possible. I just needed to experience things to know that I could do more.”
One of Smith’s advocates on campus has been Dr. Joe Ellenburg, associate professor of physical education and athletics.
“We met by chance at the Millis Center,” says Ellenburg. “I could immediately see he was interested in sports and encouraged him to take one of my coaching classes. I could tell he had a great grasp of how the game should be played strategically.”
Ellenburg was so impressed that he talked to Coach Cherry about allowing Smith to work with the team.
“I told him about Collin’s knowledge and that he could be a good aide, despite being in a wheelchair,” says Ellenburg. “They’ve been very impressed with him.”
The team and Greene made it possible for Smith to live out one of his life-long dreams: to ride on a college basketball team’s bus.
“That was one of the coolest things I’ve done,” says Smith. “I’ve seen guys get off the bus on TV, but now I was the one getting off the bus.”
The entire experience – bonding with Ernest, earning a degree at HPU, working face to face with the men’s basketball team and finding a true mentor in Ellenburg – is a journey that will propel him forward to the next big step. It’s a journey he started with Greene and will end with Greene, along with several thousand supporters who will cheer him on when crosses the stage to receive his degree on May 4.
“Collin has the ability to do anything he wants to in the future, and I know he will,” says Ernest. “He’s proved that so many times. Sometimes you have to find a different way to do things, and his biggest asset is his self-motivation to do what needs to done.”
Noting Greene’s selfless service and commitment to Collin, HPU President Nido Qubein also surprised Greene by honoring him with an honorary degree of Bachelor of Humane Letters during the Commencement ceremony.