Joseph Cali, a graduate of both University College–Newark and the School of Health Related Professions, teaches a course in psychology at Brookdale Community College.


Joseph Cali, a graduate of both University College–Newark and the School of Health Related Professions, teaches a course in psychology at Brookdale Community College, with plans to become a counselor and help people with spinal cord injuries like his.

Nick Romanenko

Late on a summer evening in 2006, following a night of bar-hopping on Staten Island, Joseph Cali’s life changed forever. The friend driving them home lost control of his Chevy truck and crashed. Cali UCN’10, SHRP’14, who wasn’t wearing his seat belt, was thrown from the vehicle. Just like that, he was transformed from an irreverent 20-year-old who loved extreme sports to a man consigned to a wheelchair. “It took me three years to come to terms with my injury, that I can’t do many of the things I used to do,” he says. “But there are many things I can do. I’m grateful for my recovery.”

Cali, who remembers nothing about the accident, awoke from a medically induced coma a week later, unable to move. He had injured his spinal cord and C-5 vertebra, and was paralyzed from the neck down with limited use of his arms. “It was an eye-opener,” he says. “I’d never heard of C-5; now it was part of my daily vocabulary.” After 52 days in intensive care, where he fought off seven bouts of pneumonia, pressure sores, and other threats to his fragile state of health, he was transferred to Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation, which has an association with Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences (RBHS), in West Orange, New Jersey.

Rehabilitation was difficult, fraught with moments of despondence. But the staff raised his spirits and helped him fight his negativity when it encroached. “The therapists pushed me hard and taught me how to do things—feed myself, get around, brush my teeth. They took me food shopping,” he says. “I saw there was life after catastrophic injury.” Befriending other patients, including a paralyzed police officer with no use of his arms, he realized he could be worse off. Cali began considering a career helping others.

He returned home in April 2007 to a handicap-accessible apartment that his mother and stepfather fabricated in their Hazlet, New Jersey, house. He gradually adjusted to living independently and learned to travel using public transportation provided for the disabled. Education became his first priority. He obtained an associate’s degree at Brookdale Community College and then a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Rutgers University–Newark, graduating magna cum laude. “Academic achievement was a new experience,” he says. “Before the accident, I was more brawn than brains.”

He learned about the psychiatric rehabilitation program at the School of Health Related Professions, part of RBHS, and enrolled in a master’s program. Rehabilitation counselors help individuals with disabilities develop the skills to live and work as independently as possible. A major goal of psych rehab is steady, quality employment, which coincides with his own quest to build a career.

After receiving his master’s in rehabilitation counseling last spring, Cali is pursuing licensing and certification credentials, which open the door to higher-level counseling jobs. He teaches psychology courses at Brookdale, enjoying it more than he anticipated. He served internships at JFK Medical Center in Edison, New Jersey, and at Kessler, where he counseled people who were newly injured, still raw with shock. “They saw where I came from and how I’d progressed. My success gave them hope.” Cali sees his future as a blend of teaching and counseling, and he hopes to work with people with spinal cord injuries. 

Cali, now free of melancholy, enjoys an active life with work and friends, and he manages on his own with some assistance from his parents and an aide, who helps him wash and dress each morning. The accident has not suppressed the side of his personality drawn to extreme adventures. He has sky­dived and flown in a glider plane. High in the air, seeing the vast world below, he has a newfound perspective. “Before my accident, I was an extreme person who did some dumb things,” he says. “My extreme side is what put me in a wheelchair. But it’s also what enabled me to come through this and have a productive life.”

— Mary Ann Littell