Education

A fall in Big Sur took his ability to walk. How Cal Poly got this student back to the beach

It was a sweet moment captured on camera: A group of new friends and strangers helped build an impromptu path so a Cal Poly student who uses a wheelchair could join in the fun of a beach bonfire party.

The video shows transfer student Alexander Fung smiling as people lay hard-foam tiles on the sand in front of his mobilized chair while the sun sets at the Oceano Dunes. People came together to overcome a lack of accessibility, and it felt good.

“I was having too much fun,” Fung told The Tribune. “It was very heartwarming that people were coming together to build a solution.”

Since the video was posted about a week ago on Reddit, he’s become a bit of an on-campus celebrity as people that he hasn’t met yet wave to him on campus. As of Monday, the video has been viewed about a million times.

As it turns out, there’s a lot more to the story.

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Alexander Fung is an aerospace engineering student at Cal Poly. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

SLO student is not here to party

It happened so fast he didn’t feel any pain.

Fung fell 200 feet down a cliff in Big Sur after slipping on an edge while on a walk with his friends in 2012. Once he landed on rocks, he broke his neck and stopped feeling anything below his shoulders. Then, he waited.

He focused on breathing in and out with the rhythm of the waves until a helicopter came, four hours later. But his journey to rock bottom had just begun.

“I’m sure there are people who go through a traumatic incident and bounce back,” Fung said. “I am not one of them.”

During years of recovery Fung became suicidal. He pushed away his friends and he wanted to die. Things turned around when, at 25, he found himself identifying with a terminally-ill 93-year-old man. It scared him.

After the realization, Fung called a community college and said he wanted to start classes.

“When I hung up, I just started crying because I had gotten back on the right path,” he said.

Before the fall, Fung’s grades were what he called abysmal. Years later, he has transferred from City College of San Francisco to Cal Poly to launch a lifelong career in aerospace engineering.

His passion for the field formed the same way it did for many students in his classes: a childhood love of science fiction and a recent boom the aerospace industry.

Fung talks openly about his life experience, and he’s hilarious with a quirk for dark humor. He once framed two heroin needles that popped a tire of his wheelchair and hung them on the wall of his San Francisco home.

He isn’t interested in drinking a lot or partying. He’s on campus to learn, work and network. And Cal Poly is a great place to do that, especially in his chosen field.

It’s not the greatest place for someone who uses a wheelchair, especially for someone who values their independence. But he and others are engineering solutions.

Is the Cal Poly campus accessible?

The Cal Poly campus was built more than 100 years ago in the hills of San Luis Obispo. It sprawls over 1,300 acres and the campus core, where most classes are held, is 150 acres.

It’s huge, and it’s full of barriers to access.

Take Building 41 as an example. As an engineering building, it’s a place Fung needs to go regularly to meet with his professors — and he literally can’t get in.

“If I want to go there, I have to camp out and wait for someone to help me, which is kind of demeaning,” Fung said.

While the building is newer, there is no button he can push to automatically open the door. He would prefer to open the door on his own. It’s a matter of dignity, he said.

Then there’s The Hangar, a student resource lab used by engineering clubs. There are two ways for Fung to get there on his own — on a bumpy dirt path that is really uncomfortable or along the road with vehicle traffic that he’s worried will hit him.

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Cal Poly student Alexander Fung David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Disability Resources Center supports diversity

Those are the kinds of issues that Cal Poly’s Disability Resources Center exists to address.

There’s a long-term plan to improve accessibility across the campus over time. But each student’s needs are unique, and sometimes, student needs are urgent. To address that, five accessibility specialists work to provide day-to-day support to nearly 2,000 students to ensure everyone can fully engage in the educational experience.

They work with a range of students with all kinds of disabilities, from chronic pain and frequent migraines to sensory limitations to temporary and permanent disabilities.

As Cal Poly works to address diversity issues, DRC director Debi Hill wants the university to think of “disability as diversity.”

“We’re trying to normalize the the student’s experience,” Hill said. “We want them to feel welcome and that this is their campus just like everyone else.”

That means a lot of behind-the-scenes work. Specialists coordinate to move classes to more accessible rooms, or work with professors to give students more time on a test.

When students come to them with an issue, specialists push to prioritize fixes. Building 41, for example, should have a button by winter term so students like Fung can open it on their own, according to DRC deputy director Amy Gode.

There are also two transportation vans with wheelchair lifts to assist students getting around the campus, although it has limited hours.

Ultimately, though, university staff can’t fix what they don’t know is broken, Gode said.

A lot of times, she said, “Students think, ‘Oh, I’ll just deal with this.’ ” Instead, Gode tells students, “Be a squeaky wheel. Let the DRC know as soon as possible.”

Fung said he feels supported by the DRC’s efforts.

Of all the little things he’s experienced on campus so far, like bumpy curbs or ramps that are too steep, he said, “I don’t want to escalate it to complaint status. It’s more me grumbling.”

“There are issues, but the DRC, especially the people that work there, want to work to fix it,” he said.

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Cal Poly student Alexander Fung navigates campus in his motorized wheelchair. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

His friends built a path on the beach

The party at the beach came after a week of welcome activities in which WOW leaders and Gode were working to find ways for Fung to participate. They acquired a van to drive him to the seashore, but the bonfire was far across the soft dunes.

Back home in San Francisco, Fung said that his friends would lay plywood from Home Depot on the beach.

Gode’s solution was to use tiles that are used to create a flat surface to aid people with mobility problems attend commencement. It was poetic, Fung said. These tiles paved the way for him to participate in the welcome party and the next time he would see them would be graduation.

In the video, people can be seen working together, cheering, congratulating each other and giving a thumbs up.

“At first, I felt guilty. It took time and it was hard work to help me,” Fung said. Then he realized, “None of them thought it was work.”

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Alex Fung joined other new Cal Poly students at a beach bonfire party with a little innovation and the help of some friends. Courtesy of Alex Fung

He wanted to talk about his experience because a lot of the comments on the viral video demonstrated how uninformed people are. Some people, for example, suggested that his friends should have carried him to the bonfire.

“There are a lot of situations where that’s not an ideal situation,” he said. “Everybody’s disability might be different. ... Just carrying someone, it’s very easy to dislocate joints, especially if the person has very little control or no control of their body.”

Every disabled person’s needs are unique and how people want to be treated is unique, he noted.

In general, he just wants people to treat him like another student.

“I’m physically disabled but mentally I’m still a normal person. Just because I can’t get over something doesn’t mean I want to rely on somebody else to help me do it,” Fung said.

If he’s opening the door by himself, don’t help him. But if he yells out for help because he is stuck on a rock, lend a hand. And, if he is rolling too slowly on the path in front of you, Fung said he wants you to yell at him.

“If you would punch your friend in the arm for being stupid, I want you to punch me in the arm,” he said.

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Monica Vaughan reports on health, Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo County, oil and wildlife at The Tribune. She previously covered crime and justice in the Sacramento Valley, is a graduate of the University of Oregon journalism school and is a sixth-generation Californian. Have an idea for a story? Email: mvaughan@thetribunenews.com
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