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Defined by his successes not his limitations

Graduating mechanical engineering student Edgar Jimenez faces challenges every day. But it’s nothing he can’t handle.

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There are a few things people should know about Edgar Jimenez, a graduating senior in mechanical engineering at The University of Texas at Austin’s Cockrell School of Engineering.

Yes, he is in a wheelchair and has been for much of his life. Yes, he needs help doing many basic things, like squeezing toothpaste onto his toothbrush or putting on his shoes and socks.

But, no, these things do not define him — not at all.

Jimenez is defined by an insatiable drive to do his best; a dedicated family that uprooted from Costa Rica to Texas where facilities and services better accommodated Jimenez and his brother’s disabilities; and a love for Texas Longhorn football, which he supports by attending practices and games and tutoring players.

On Dec. 4, 22-year-old Jimenez will be among 600 students graduating from the Cockrell School of Engineering. A near perfect grade point average in mechanical engineering earned him highest honors and he’s already had several job interviews with the top oil and gas companies in the world.

His accomplishments both on and off campus are something that anyone would be proud of, but it’s the story up until here — the one where a disease slowly weakened his muscles and robbed his motor skills — that makes his feats all the more compelling.

“I hope that I can be a living example that life will never give you more than you can handle,” Jimenez said. “I’ve faced diversity every day of my life, but it’s not brought me down.”

Discovering and coping with an unknown disease

Jimenez was a little over 1 years old when he began walking.

As with all babies, the developmental milestone was something to celebrate but for Jimenez’s family, especially his physician father, it was also their first hint that something was wrong.

Jimenez didn’t walk normally and it was a gate his parents had seen before in their oldest son who, two years older than Jimenez, had been diagnosed with muscular dystrophy (MD).

Muscular dystrophy refers to a group of hereditary diseases that progressively weaken and deteriorate the skeletal muscles that control movement. There is no known cure for the disease and the severity of the symptoms and prognosis varies from one strand of the disease to another.

A doctor’s visit soon after confirmed Jimenez had the same type of MD as his brother. Despite numerous blood samples and tests, the specific form of MD that Jimenez and his brother have is unknown, but the version of the disease is not terminal — something he said he is grateful for every day.

Knowing life could be difficult in Costa Rica with a disability, Jimenez’s parents moved the family to the U.S. and eventually to Portland, Texas, a small town of 18,000 north of Corpus Christi. It was here where most of his life was spent and where his disease progressed.

Up until seventh grade, Jimenez could run and walk with leg braces. He’d fall down every now and again, but looked at these trials as the bigger metaphor for life that sometimes you fall and just have to get back up.

In the seventh grade he started using a manual wheelchair to help him traverse the large school campus. During physical education classes, he would walk the perimeter of the gym sometimes assisted by coaches to try and retain his muscle mass, but by the beginning of eighth grade he was forced to permanently use a manual wheelchair and, in high school, a power wheelchair.

Parts of high school were difficult, like when he endured a 10 hour surgery to correct the scoliosis that’s a byproduct of MD and spent a month recovering. But during this time his love for sports and academics also flourished.

He loved football so much that he convinced his high school administration to let him attach a school flag to his power wheelchair and run with it down the sidelines when a touchdown was scored.

He was also driven by his school work and got a rush out of competing and being intellectually pushed. When it came time for graduation, Jimenez was valedictorian, and made one of the most life changing decisions of his life: to come to The University of Texas at Austin.

Finding acceptance on the Forty Acres

Jimenez’s arrival at college was filled with the normal apprehension, anticipation and uncertainty that comes with any student leaving home for the first time, but for Jimenez it also meant he’d be without the care and help of his family to do daily tasks like putting on his shoes or preparing food. Fortunately, his assigned potluck roommate was willing to assist Jimenez with these tasks and, though the first two weeks of college were difficult, he eventually made friends easily.

He also returned to his love of sports by attending football practice once a week in the fall, where he’s become a fixture on the sidelines.

“It shows us that not everybody has been given the opportunity we have to go out here and play football,” said then-quarterback Colt McCoy in a 2007 interview for the Longhorn football Web site. “It means a lot that he comes out to practice, he supports us, and it’s a lot of fun to see him out there and for us to be supportive of him, too.”

The biggest event for Jimenez occurred at the end of his freshman year when he received a black Labrador retriever service dog named Rowdy. The dog can do everything from help pick something up and locate and bring him his cell phone.

“More importantly, he is a friend that is always at my side,” Jimenez said. “A dog is a man’s best friend — and in Rowdy’s case that is an understatement.”

Edgar diving out of a plane

Jimenez has been skydiving twice. Photo: Courtesy of Edgar Jimenez photo

Jimenez’s hobbies are typical of other college guys his age. He’s likes going to movies, playing video games, listening to country music and taking Rowdy to the park.

“I remember when we first met he asked if I wanted to play Xbox and I was surprised by his ability to do so. He just had to hold the control differently, but he could and he would beat me,” said best friend Michael Mullis, who shared a room with Jimenez in the dorms for two years and graduated with a mechanical engineering degree in May.

He drives himself in a van that’s modified so he can easily steer and he’s been skydiving twice, most recently with his mother. He can type and write well, it just takes him longer.

“If you interacted with Edgar in all the professional and academic aspects and you were blindfolded, you would never know he’s got muscular dystrophy or that he’s in a wheelchair. He’s never asked for any special accommodation,” said Kristin Wood , a mechanical engineering professor who taught Jimenez in the spring of 2010 in his ME 366J class. “It shows by his GPA that Edgar is a disciplined student. He’s dedicated and talented and he brings that talent to perform well.”

Wood, who still meets with Jimenez periodically, recently recommended Jimenez for the leadership award that’s given out each year during graduation.

Jimenez still faces challenges. Sometimes people walk up without even knowing him and ask what’s wrong. The most annoying, he said, is when people stare at him, but he accepts this with the same mild manner and understanding that he does most of the complications with his disease.

“If it’s a child that’s fine because I’m sure they’ve never seen someone like me before,” Jimenez said. “And I understand people are curious.”

Even so, Jimenez said the university has been one of the most accepting places and he’s grateful to everyone here.

In return, faculty, students and staff are also grateful to him.

Academic Advising Coordinator Christina Perkins met Jimenez a year ago when he came to her office to discuss graduation.

“He started telling me his story and I was just so impressed because sometimes when students have challenges it’s hard to get through them, and I guess, for him, what he was experiencing wasn’t a challenge it was just a part of who he was and what he’s trying to do here,” Perkins said. “He’s made the most of it despite everything and he’s had a successful student experience in every sense of the word.”

Jimenez often talks about his life with this analogy: you play the hand you’re dealt and folding is not an option. Play your cards right, he said, and you may end up running the table.

“I think I’ve lived out my college experience just like anybody else — to the fullest. The details may be different, such as what I’ve been able to do and where I’ve been able to go, but the overlying principles remain the same,” he said. “I attained a wealth of knowledge, I made life-long friends and I made memories that will last a lifetime.”

This story originally appeared on the Cockrell School of Engineering Web site.