Michelle Henton used to take for granted simple movements like standing to cut someone’s hair or running to catch a bus.
However, ever since the car crash on Sept. 29, 2002 that left her paralyzed from chest to toes, the 37-year-old graduate clinical psychology student has had a lot of time to think.
“The first thing was, I had to realize I was the same person – just seated,” said Henton, who will be the first in her family to receive a master’s degree as well as the student Commencement speaker for the 2 p.m. May 11 graduation ceremony at the Auditorium Theatre.
A lifelong Chicagoan from the city’s Austin neighborhood, Henton could have spent the last 15-plus years lamenting her inability to do hair, a career she truly loved after graduating from Trinity High School in River Forest in 1998.
Instead, the quadriplegic, who underwent years of therapy with hope of someday regaining mobility she lost when the car she was a passenger in hit two parked cars and a moving vehicle, decided she needed to get on with her life by going to college.
“I never wanted to be a wheelchair person in the corner or to use my disability as a crutch,” said Henton, who today has her own apartment and tends to always see the positive side of things, even though tasks we frequently take for granted, like opening a jar or cooking a meal, can be frustrating.
Watch a segment on Michelle from ABC7 Chicago below, or watch a segment from CBS Chicago on their website..
In 2004, Henton enrolled at Malcolm X College where she was an honor’s student. By 2014, she received a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Roosevelt University. Now nearly four years later, Henton is about to take her biggest step forward yet, obtaining a master’s degree that she hopes will lead to a job counseling patients with developmental disabilities that can cause some of the same challenges she confronts every day.
“I knew right away that this woman was going to be a great therapist,” said 39-year-old Melissa Melzer, a fellow master’s in clinical psychology student who met Henton on her first day of class at Roosevelt. The two have kept in regular contact ever since, and plan to study together this summer for the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), as both would like to return to Roosevelt to earn doctoral degrees in psychology together.
“She’s a good person, a great listener, and someone who’s managed to take an unfortunate accident and not let it stop her from becoming the best version of herself that she can be,” said Melzer, who also will graduate on May 11 and who nominated Henton to address members of Roosevelt’s Class of 2018.
“The person who speaks at our graduation should be inspiring and make us feel excited about the future, and I can’t think of anyone better to do that than Michelle Henton,” added Melzer.
The student Commencement speaker promises to share the journey of self-discovery she felt compelled to take after the drunken-driving accident, in order that she may fully live Roosevelt University’s mission of making positive change in her community and the lives of others.
“What I want my fellow graduates to know is no matter what happens, even if you get shut down, you have to keep finding a way. Don’t give up – push through,” she said.
One of Henton’s funny quips includes mention of a love for shoes that, because of the accident, always look pristine. She also has more serious but still positive realizations, happy she was a month shy of 22 at the time of the crash, which kept her eligible for medical coverage under her mother’s health insurance policy.
“There is not a day that I have felt despair. I’ve tried to always find a silver lining in everything,” she said.
Currently completing a practicum experience as part of her Roosevelt degree at the Harold Washington College Wellness Center, Henton regularly counsels students dealing with stress, depression, grief and other issues.
“I’ve learned the importance of empathy and feel passionate about helping people to just feel good about themselves,” said Henton, who aims to use these skills as a licensed clinical therapist.
“My life has been about finding a path, and with this degree I think I have found the right way for something I love to do, and for a positive future.”