A photo of a man smiling and leaning to the side while looking down.
“I like to look at situations that appear to be negative in a positive way,” said Khalil Watson, a VCU junior social work major. (Kevin Morley, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

Perseverance in motion, VCU undergrad Khalil Watson found inspiration from tragedy

Social work became his path after he was paralyzed in a shooting as a high school senior.

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Active in sports during middle and high school, Khalil Watson never envisioned himself in a wheelchair. He never thought, at age 18, that he would have to be fed through a tube or would have to relearn how to breathe, speak and eat. Before May 26, 2016, his goal was the same as other graduating seniors: walk across the stage and get his diploma from Highland Springs High School near Richmond.

But Watson’s world changed that day when, after getting a haircut at the barbershop, he was robbed and shot in the neck. He was transported to VCU Medical Center, where he stayed until Aug. 11. A spinal cord injury had left Watson paralyzed, and instead of walking across the stage, he had to stream his graduation ceremony from his hospital bed.

From May through June that year, Watson found himself in the ICU, hooked up to feeding and breathing tubes. But through it all, he kept hope alive.

“I like to look at situations that appear to be negative in a positive way,” said Watson, now a Virginia Commonwealth University junior working on a degree from the School of Social Work.

Watson began physical therapy at what is now Sheltering Arms Institute, a collaboration with VCU Health, in 2016, and he continues to benefit from its services. “Every time I go to therapy, I see progression,” he said. “All of the therapists I work with are good.”

In 2019, he felt strong enough to begin working on his associate degree in pre-social work from Reynolds Community College. With no reliable transportation, there were days when Watson would ride his wheelchair miles to get to the downtown campus of Reynolds.

“I was using the GRTC bus to get to school, but I would have to ride my wheelchair when I would miss the bus,” he said. “I would ride on the side of the streets when there were no sidewalks.”

A photo of a man in an electric wheel chair.
Khalil Watson decided to pursue social work as a career during his hospital stay and the rehab process. (Kevin Morley, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

Watson became interested in social work after being shot, and it was during his hospital stay and rehab that he decided to pursue it as a career.

“I’ve always been passionate about helping others,” he said. “While I was recovering, I had encountered numerous social workers, and seeing them in action is what made me want to be a social worker myself.”

On May 15 this year, Watson walked across the stage to get his degree from Reynolds – with the help of a wearable robotic exoskeleton and two of his therapists at Sheltering Arms. He started training with the cutting-edge technology in 2021.

“It was challenging for sure,” he said. “But I was able to walk for my degree.”

Walking again was a “great experience,” he added. “All the things I had to endure to get to this – the fact that I graduated felt like a dream.”

VCU was a natural choice when it came time to continue his education.

“I’m a Richmond native and it all fit,” Watson said. “Due to my circumstances, I knew I wouldn’t be able to go to school out of state.”

In light of transportation issues, Watson is taking classes online, and he is on target to graduate with his bachelor’s degree in 2025. He then hopes to start his master’s degree in social work.

He said his ongoing recovery is a team effort. “I’ve had support from my family and friends along with all of my therapists. They have all played a role in my success,” he said.

A photo of a man sitting on a medical table with a woman sitting next to him and touching his arm.
Khalil Watson works with physical therapist Christina Smith at the Sheltering Arms Bon Air Physical Therapy Clinic and Rehabilitation Center. Smith has worked with Watson since 2016. Here, they work on his mobility and his ability to get out of and into his wheelchair. (Kevin Morley, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

Watson’s positive attitude, an attribute since he was young, is a factor as well. “Something I’ve learned is that I am able to persevere, to keep going through life regardless of your circumstances,” he said.

For now, Watson’s goal is to walk again – and to enjoy his time in college.

“I definitely am rooting for the basketball team. I love to talk sports. I hope to get to a few basketball events and join certain clubs,” he said. “I plan to take advantage of everything that I can while I’m at VCU.”