Turning Tragedy into Service

RED OAK, TX — College was never on Mike Alford’s radar. His father was a welder, and he was to follow in his footsteps. It was a tragic accident, and a few chance encounters, that changed everything.

Before he could drive, Mike had traveled to 48 states. He and his dad would pack into their car and drive all over the country. Since his dad owned his own welding business, closing up shop for two months was never a problem. They would camp and visit family around the country. Mike’s favorite hobbies were riding his dune buggy and motorcycle. That all changed after a diving accident when he was 16.

“I broke my neck diving down at some creek in Rockett close to the Red Oak High School,” Mike recalled. “There were two guys there that had just learned CPR. The ambulance drivers didn’t think that I had broken my neck, so they pulled me up out of the creek with an inner tube.”

Mike was rushed to the Waxahachie Hospital where it was determined that he had, indeed, broken his neck. He was referred to Parkland Hospital in Dallas where he remained for six weeks. He was then transferred to Houston for further treatment. Mike’s accident occurred June 23, 1975, and he was released from the hospital nearly six months later, only a few days before Christmas.

Though now confined to a wheelchair, Mike never allowed that to get in his way. College had not previously been a goal, but following the accident, he decided to pursue a degree in sociology. The inspiration for his choice of degree came from his time in rehab. “[The rehab center] had two people who looked like my age — one was an art major, the other was an English major,” Mike explained. “When they said, ‘I know what you’re going through,’ they didn’t really know what I was going through. How could they?” Mike’s time in rehab set him on the road to social work. “Now when I say, ‘I understand,’” he added, “I really do understand.”

Paying for a degree, however, is no easy feat. Shortly after Mike’s accident, a representative from the Texas Rehabilitation Commission (TRC), now the Texas Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services (DARS), approached him about a five- year scholarship for his education. “Even though I was a senior in high school, they would pay for five years of college,” Mike remembered. Mike used the money to enroll at Eastfield College for a year and then transferred to The University of Texas at Arlington. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in sociology, and shortly after, three weeks before he turned 23, he earned his master’s degree in social work.

The scholarship program, however, never included a master’s degree. The scholarship assumed most people would take five years to earn their bachelor’s degree. Mike blew through his bachelor’s at a faster rate than the scholarship anticipated and used the remaining money to earn his master’s. “At the end of five years, I met with [TRC], and they asked me, ‘How long ago did you get your bachelor’s?’ I said, ‘Nine months ago. I’m almost finished with my master’s.’ So I took advantage of them paying for my education,” Mike explained. It didn’t take Mike long to find a place with his degree. In his senior year of his undergraduate program, he enrolled at Cedar Valley College for a few extra course hours and ended up being hired as an employee. “I was hired as a tutor and tutored through my master’s,” Mike recalled. “The tutor coordinator was on a nine-month contract, so I was their tutor [during the summer], and during the rest of the year I worked with students with disabilities because that was before ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act].” Mike’s role with disabled students was to hire sign language interpreters and students to take notes for other students who couldn’t write, as well as assist in any other personalized way for students with disabilities.

Throughout his tenure, Mike was promoted several times, leading to his current position as coordinator of career services. In this capacity, Mike connects students with jobs, purchases software to assist students with interviews and résumés, and gives class presentations on dressing for success and résumé writing. In this role, Mike has integrated new programs to increase students’ chances at getting jobs. One of these is Perfect Interview, where students can videotape themselves doing an interview, then later receive a critique. Another is MyPlan, which helps students who know what they want to major in but are not sure what type of a job they could get with the degree they are interested in pursuing. One of the biggest challenges in his job is finding work for ex-offenders. “Getting the ex-offenders into positions they want [is difficult],” Mike explained. “You can find jobs for ex-offenders, but it’s the jobs that nobody wants to do.”

Even still, Mike works to help them get back in the workforce. In his nearly 32 years at Cedar Valley College, Mike has seen a fair share of unique students. “I was at a Sting concert in 1990, and someone about two stories above me kept yelling at me,” Mike recalled. “I looked up, and it was a student running sound for Sting. After the concert, he took me backstage. He said that he traveled the world, and he was the only guy who did the mixing and recording for Sting.” Another student walked into Mike’s office one day wanting to earn a degree in musical performance. “One student came in and never had played an instrument before,” Mike laughed. “He left here and won all kinds of awards for piano and keyboard. He moved to Vegas and was booked solid for eight years straight.”

One of Mike’s favorite hobbies remains traveling, despite his wheelchair. “I go on a cruise to the Caribbean in the winter every year,” he said. After his accident, he visited Alaska on his honeymoon to go on a cruise. All he has left is Hawaii and he will have visited all of the states. The only problem is his distaste for flying. “I hate flying,” Mike explained. “I have flown twice, and each time someone has messed up my wheelchair.” While college was not part of his original plan, life’s intervention led Mike to a rewarding career. “When people come jumping into my office yelling, ‘I got a job! I got a job!’ especially when it’s in the field they wanted,” Mike said, “that’s the most rewarding thing.

Written by Mikaela Mathews.