DCTC Graduate Achieves More than a Degree

Lakeville man refuses to let paralysis keep him from living
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Lakeville man refuses to let paralysis keep him from living

(left to right) Harold Torrence, Kevin Sweeney, and Scott Gunderson celebrating success at DCTC's graduation ceremony, May 2012.

Every student at Dakota County Technical College found a reason to take the leap and jump into college. For Kevin Sweeney, it was to overcome obstacles and make a living the way he wanted to. Not only did he graduate in May, he found inspiration and confidence to last a lifetime. Emily Hedges from Sun ThisWeek tells Kevin’s story.

Lakeville man refuses to let paralysis keep him from living

Courtesy of Emily Hedges, Sun ThisWeek

Kevin Sweeney, 51, of Lakeville doesn’t think of himself as much different than the average person. Everyone has obstacles to overcome in life, and he is no exception.

But most people would agree that his obstacles are anything but average. While volunteering at the Jaycees dunk tank during the 1996 Pan-O-Prog festival in Lakeville, Sweeney fell off the back and was paralyzed from the neck down.

Suddenly, the auto mechanic, part-time VFW bartender, and avid softball player had to invent a whole new life.

“With an obstacle you have to go over, around or through it,” he said. “You have to adapt to what you have to do and do it.”

The first thing he put his mind to was regaining as much movement as possible.

“They say that what feelings and movements you’ve got after one year is what you’ll have, but I disagree completely,” he said.

Sweeney began to watch people around him that could do things he wanted to do.

“I studied babies and kids, how they learned to get up off the ground,” he said. “I observed others in their everyday activities they take for granted. Now I can move my hands and I have started walking with a walker some. I refused to let things stop me.”

Sweeney is limited in his hand usage, but he has adaptive equipment that helps him hold a telephone and drive his van. He says that when he’s in his chair, he doesn’t feel disabled because he can go where he wants to.

“I just always look on the high side of things. What other people are doing, to an extent, that’s what I want to do. I’ve been parasailing. I mow my own lawn. I do weed whipping and drive an adapted motorcycle. I never look back. I just keep looking forward.”

The next challenge Sweeney took on was how to make a living. But the active people-person wasn’t interested in just busy work.

“I wanted to find a position in today’s society where I could fit in,” he said. “Sitting around stuffing envelopes isn’t my cup of tea.”

Although Sweeney already held a bachelor’s degree in science from the University of Wisconsin-Stout, he felt he lacked the appropriate education and experience to land the one thing he now required — a desk job. He started to look around the area for education posibilities. When he saw that Dakota County Technical College offered two-year degrees with evening and online courses, he knew it was just the program he was looking for.

“This made it easy for someone like myself. I could do much of it online,” he said.

Sweeney graduated with honors in May. He earned a management for technical professionals degree. He also earned an accounting clerk diploma and a quality improvement certificate. He estimates that he devoted 20 hours per week studying, spending about 80 percent of his time in the classroom and 20 percent online.

Now he hopes to find a new career, perhaps with a small business.

“I can manage and organize. I have finesse with numbers. I just want to find a place that will give me a chance to show what I can do,” he said.

Instructors like Harold Torrence, Scott Gunderson, Patti Wiegand and others at Dakota County Technical College certainly got the chance.

“Regardless of any possible limitations, you can always see Kevin inspiring and motivating fellow students to move forward with their dream,” said Torrence. “He has the ability to build strong and lasting human relationships with a compassionate leadership style. His personal story is more than inspirational.”

Sweeney found his instructors to be just as inspirational for him.

“They gave me wonderful ideas, enthusiasm and confidence to continue learning. They sought out opportunities to help me and taught me how times are changing so I can adapt,” he said.

One of Sweeney’s class projects was to give a speech to his classmates and he decided to give it on handicap awareness. But overall, he says he was the one who did the learning from his classmates, especially the foreign students.

“Seeing how they adapted to the United States was amazing,” he said. “It was sort of the same thing I was doing — learning to function in a new culture.”

Sweeney views his challenge in changing careers as a common one in today’s economic climate, especially for baby boomers and seniors.

“My story is related to how all people have to change. Look at businesses that are closing, laying off, and downsizing. If you’re one of those workers, you’ll have to learn to do something else. This is where baby boomers are coming in. Companies are getting rid of older workers, so they have to go back to school to learn technology to get back up to date.”

Sweeney knows from experience that it can be daunting entering a classroom for the first time in decades, but he encourages other older students not to let it stop them.

“Don’t be afraid to step in the limelight of school. Your brain can adapt and learn again,” he said. “Keep an open mind and look forward. If there is something you want to do, go for it.”

Institutions like Dakota County Technical College make it easier than ever for older students to feel comfortable and get the education they need.

For more information about the DCTC Supervisory Management program, contact:
For more information about Dakota County Technical College, call 651-423-8000, or go to www.dctc.edu.