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Grad overcomes traumatic
head injury to finish degree

May 16, 2014

Christopher Turgeon Christopher Turgeon

Christopher Turgeon knows about falling down and getting back up again – literally and figuratively. The General Studies major hailing from Wakefield has been dealt some physical and psychological blows in life, but he hasn't let them stop him. And after years of refusing to take "no" for an answer, he's ready to move on to conquer his next hurdle: a bachelor's degree.

"If people learn from their mistakes, anything is possible," said Turgeon, reflecting on how he went from barely finishing high school to graduating from the Community College of Rhode Island with his associate degree.

When Turgeon, 25, talks about his mistakes – not performing well in high school, for example – you can see his steely resolve to adapt, to pave a smoother path for himself. But it wasn't simply a matter of changing his own behavior. After bullying in high school forced him to transfer, Turgeon also had to deal with two losses in his young life: the divorce of his parents and the death of his grandmother, with whom he was extremely close.

Turgeon described his grandmother as a no-nonsense caretaker, equal parts Margaret Thatcher and Angela Merkel. She was the department chairwoman of foreign languages at Toll Gate High School in Warwick and spoke three languages. She inspired Turgeon to study German, which he now speaks proficiently.

"I didn't realize everything she taught me at the time," he said. "But now, I see it. She was really strong. I'm much more like her now."

After Turgeon squeaked through the end of high school – he remembers staying up the night before graduation writing his final English papers – he sat down with his father to discuss his future prospects. They thought that CCRI would be the best place for him, given that it was close to home and that his academic record in high school hadn't represented his abilities. Turgeon was quick to make the most of CCRI's support services when he arrived on campus and that, in conjunction with his now-trademark perseverance, started to hint at good things to come.

But Turgeon would have yet another stumbling block to face. While playing in a pickup hockey game, another skater knocked him unconscious in an open check as they crashed into each other in pursuit of the puck. Unconscious, Turgeon was taken to South County Hospital, where he underwent extensive reconstructive surgery to his face in which doctors removed his orbital bone on the right side and replaced it with a metal plate. He still struggles with the effects of his head injury; he has trigeminal neuralgia, which he describes as intermittent electric shocks inside his face, and suffered considerable hearing loss in his right ear.

"Before, I would make more emotional decisions, but now I've learned there are just some things I can't do anything about. I just have to get through them and learn," he said of dealing with his injuries.

Turgeon pressed on with his studies when he was able to return to the college, continuing to make the most out of the supports that he could find. He referred to a meticulously organized and highlighted folder with study tips from the Success Center and a detailed schedule as he explained some of his strategies for continuing to improve as a student. When he started at CCRI, he explained, he tended to take too much on, but he was able to scale back his ambitious plans and make a study schedule that better suited him.

Once he had the time management piece nailed down, he doggedly pursued improvement in each of his classes. He said he regularly visits professors, advisers, tutors and career services. Although he lives at the state's southern end, he logged nearly 150 registered hours in the math lab at the Flanagan Campus in Lincoln to get the help he needed. He also praised the various CCRI faculty members with whom he has worked over the years.

"I never dreamed there would ever be any way I would take calculus or any advanced classes," he said. "I'm thrilled that I was able to do it."

Always interested in working with his hands, Turgeon once was focused on engineering and, although he described himself as having tendencies toward the solitary, forced himself to open up to the campus community partly by taking the helm of the Engineering and Technology Club at the Knight Campus in Warwick. Where he once said he was "a ghost," he now was organizing events for the club regularly. He also served as vice president of the Newport Student Government, where he co-sponsored coffee hours.

But like Turgeon's own academic abilities, his interests have evolved. Inspired by the memory of his grandmother, who died from liver cancer, and by his own experiences with the doctors who helped him after his head injury, he wants to turn his talents to medicine, specifically microbiology or biochemistry. "I've realized what I'm good at and what I'll thrive in," he said, noting that those fields would offer him a chance to make strides in disease research.

"In the past, I've done research for people I've met, including faculty and administrators at CCRI who have gone through similar events regarding disease and losing people close to them, finding articles for them about advanced research. This has given me a very high level of motivation and determination to go forward in the medical research field," he said.

He said he hopes to journey to a college out West, although he's still deciding just where, to continue his education. Wherever he goes, he'll be taking more than just his associate degree with him – he'll be toting a much-deserved confidence boost as well: "I've proved everyone wrong constantly."


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Last Updated: 4/1/15