We Are the Class of 2020 Telling our story, one graduate at a time.

Ryley Hopper in front of the seahawk statue

December 7, 2020

Just before the start of his sophomore year at UNCW, a diving accident left Ryley Hopper paralyzed from the chest down and forced him to delay his original graduation plans. After a yearlong absence for recovery and rehabilitation, he returned in 2017 to finish his degree – determined to succeed.

“After my injury, I made it very clear to my family, friends and doctors that I would be returning to school,” Hopper said. “I changed my major from business development to finance because I wanted to challenge myself and prove that with an injury like mine, one can still be successful.”

Being in a wheelchair and still without the use of his hands, Hopper had to adapt to new ways of learning, but help from family, his fraternity brothers and UNCW faculty and staff allowed him to complete his degree. Because he couldn’t take notes, he often sat at the front of his classes, absorbing his instructors’ lectures and actively participating in discussions.

His persistence and academic commitment prompted one of his UNCW instructors to nominate him for the Hoggard Medal for Achievement.

“Ryley’s positive attitude and sense of humor are unmistakable,” wrote Alex Vestal, assistant professor of management in the Cameron School of Business. “Because Ryley faces challenges on a day-to-day basis that the rest of us do not, his infectious spirit is noteworthy and inspiring. In the classroom, Ryley is a natural leader, and his voice and words stand out amongst his peers.”

The medal is awarded to a graduating senior who, in the opinion of the faculty, has shown the most improvement or has persevered despite great obstacles. It is named for John T. Hoggard, who was president of Wilmington College from 1949-58 and a chair of the college’s board of trustees.

“As an individual who is unable to write on my own, selecting a major that often uses long mathematical proofs may seem discouraging,” Hopper said. “My peers were always willing to share notes, and my professors were always willing to take the time to write out my work as I dictated to them. I’m grateful for my Seahawk family!” Hopper also credits much of his success to his mother, Kim, who moved to Wilmington to assist him at home and at school. 

He will graduate this month and eventually plans to pursue a master’s degree, with the goal of becoming a Chartered Financial Analyst. This semester, he has had an internship with PPD, and he considers his job prospects promising.

His time at UNCW wasn’t all work. He remained involved in the Kappa Sigma fraternity and the campus community.

“I have a long list of memories here at UNCW,” he said. “But the endless times my brothers carried me up multiple flights of stairs in my wheelchair so that I could be with everyone is priceless.”

-- Tricia Vance