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Graduate profile – Justin McKenna: Standing tall

Friday, June 15, was graduation day. While several exceptional stories have been highlighted, one graduate particularly moved the audience. Before a cheering crowd made up of friends, professors, support staff and family, Justin McKenna, a theology student who became paraplegic as the result of an accident, got up from his wheelchair to receive his diploma. Here is the story of a fighter who, thanks to his courage, managed to thumb his nose at medical statistics.

A twist of fate

Before his brush with death in 2007 after being hit by a car, Justin was a teenager like any other, filled with hope and promise. One day after school, he got a call from his boss, the owner of a neighbouring farm. It was time to milk the cows. Justin headed out from his family’s home on his 4 wheeler. Then, the collision. His life was turned upside down. His body was broken and his brain severely injured. He had a 3 percent chance of survival. Against all odds, Justin hung on.

Eight years later, after a long and arduous rehabilitation, this young man from Russell, Ontario, began an unlikely mission at Saint Paul University: studying theology.


Suffering and resilience

Fr. John Whyte, who had known Justin for a long time, was a major source of support for the McKenna family. He also played a key role in Justin’s university career, becoming his aide, scribe and tutor for the past five years. “It wasn’t always easy,” he says. “Justin has come a long way to find meaning in his accident and to reconcile his suffering and his thirst for hope. His reflection and his faith greatly nourished his academic work.”

Although returning to class was hard for Justin, it was also therapeutic. “In having to memorize the material and be attentive in class,” Fr. John explains, “Justin regained a good part of his memory and, in doing so, his confidence.” But for Justin, going to Saint Paul had many other benefits. “This experience made me stronger, both mentally and physically,” he says. What will he miss most? The people. “Everyone at SPU is amazing. It’s incredibly easy to start a conversation with someone.”

Justin McKenna


The go-between

Justin himself deeply exemplifies the openness of Saint Paul. “He was always very social,” Fr. John points out. “When he shakes your hand and asks you your name, it’s because he really wants to know you. Since his accident, he has acquired this remarkable ability of approaching absolutely everyone. And people find his authenticity refreshing.” As Fr. John is more reserved, he could not have found a better “wingman” than Justin! “Sometimes my own memory can’t keep up with all the people he wants to meet!”

Learning from the Other

Justin was not the only one to expand his knowledge over the past few years. “I learned a lot from him,” Fr. John admits. What does he admire most about his friend? “His courage in the face of adversity, his love of people and his great sense of humour, which allows him to put everything, and I mean everything, in perspective.” Something to think about when we feel like complaining about nothing.

The next step

Now that he has graduated and has achieved his goal to receive his diploma standing up, a long-held dream since his first day of class five years ago, Justin is looking ahead and setting other goals. “I’d like to get married and have a family,” he told us. An autobiography is also on the horizon… Fr. John may be busy!


A course that I loved: “All my ethics courses, which helped me understand a lot of things about my life and about the suffering caused by my accident.”

A prof that had an impact on me: “Mark Slatter and Frank Emanuel are fantastic teachers. Their classes deeply affected me. What was also incredible was how available all the profs were.”

SPU in three words: “Anything is possible.”

My message to future students: “Studying at Saint Paul is a one-of-a-kind opportunity. Don’t fall asleep in your classes and be sure you don’t miss anything!”

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