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Student earns degree, despite life-changing accident

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

It was Nov. 19, and Momoh Kerkula -- a transfer student to Clayton State University from the University of Liberia in Monrovia -- was weeks away from graduating with a degree in accounting from the School of Business.

He was sending out resumes and getting ready to take a position as an accountant at H&R Block, in order to make a better life for him and his family back in Liberia.

However, a tragic car accident that afternoon on Highway 54 in Morrow changed Kerkula's life forever. At about 1 p.m., while turning into a Wachovia Bank, Kerkula's vehicle slammed into another.

Kerkula's nephew, who was driving the car, left the accident uninjured. Kerkula, who was sitting in the passenger's seat, suffered a broken neck.

After a few days of observation, doctors at Atlanta Medical Center told Kerkula that he was paralyzed from the neck down and would never walk again.

Kerkula stayed at Atlanta Medical Center for five weeks and was transferred to Kindred Hospital of Atlanta after his condition stabilized. Though unable to walk or use his arms, Kerkula was uniquely concerned about graduating with his degree.

Last month, the Clayton State University School of Business granted his wish, honoring Kerkula with his degree and a full commencement at the hospital. In a short, yet emotional ceremony, business school dean and marketing professor, Dr. Jacob Chacko, read Kerkula's degree to him and presented it at his bedside.

Dr. Michael Tidwell, associate professor of management, was one of several business school professors who participated in the commencement. He said Kerkula had completed all of the necessary credits to graduate before the accident and believed he deserved a full graduation ceremony.

"He earned his degree and because of the accident, he wasn't able to walk with his class," said Tidwell. "We felt that he deserved a full commencement ceremony."

Tidwell said the ceremony was important because Kerkula has been "one of our most outstanding students for a number of years.

"He's serious," said Tidwell. "He's been in my office grappling for a point. He may have gotten a 92 [on a test] and he wonders why he didn't get a 93.

"He set his sites on his degree and he completed it with a level of proficiency and excellence that is uncommon in most students today," Tidwell said. He added that Kerkula has been in "great spirits" considering his injuries, and has discussed pursuing a masters of business administration degree.

Michelle Terrell, academic and career advisor for the business school, described Kerkula as "extremely self-motivated" and said he was earning his degree to prepare a comfortable life for himself and his wife, who is currently living in Liberia.

Terrell believes Kerkula's drive will allow him to achieve his future career goals, despite being a quadriplegic.

"After the accident, he was very concerned about his schooling as opposed to his health," said Terrell. "I think he definitely has a good chance of still being able to utilize his degree. I think any employer that would hire him, they would be getting a great employee, because of his strong desire to succeed."

Jusu Karneh, Kerkula's half-brother, who lives in Jonesboro, said the commencement was an emotional one for everyone involved. However, he said Kerkula is receiving the family's support and believes he will be able to achieve his goal of obtaining a master's degree.

"It was a sad moment, but it was a happy one," said Karneh. "All of the professors that were there and the family ... everybody cried." However, "we are very sure that he will go further than where he is academically."