Ex-Kwantlen student launches paper while coping with spinal-cord injury

Starting a student newspaper is a challenge under the best of circumstances. Doing this while partially paralyzed takes it to a whole new level.

These days, DJ Lam can often be found peering at a laptop computer while sitting in a wheelchair in his room at the G. F. Strong Rehabilitation Centre, where he has been since his transfer in August from Vancouver General Hospital’s spinal-cord unit. Lam squeezes in time between his rehab sessions to work on the Runner, a nascent student publication that will begin distribution in January on the four campuses of Kwantlen Polytechnic University.

“It will be, hopefully, a small part of making Kwantlen what it should be: a place where people say, ‘I’m glad I go to school here,’ ” Lam told the Georgia Straight in an interview in his room.

Lam hasn’t lost his gift of the gab, his good nature, or any of his mental faculties, but he no longer has the use of his right arm and his legs. He can type slowly with his left hand. “Student newspapers are known for muckraking,” Lam said. “So if there is anybody to hold both the student society and the school accountable, this will be the way to do it.”

In February, Kwantlen students approved a referendum question asking if they would support a 75-cent-per-credit fee to fund an independent, student-owned, student-run newspaper. Lam, a Kwantlen journalism grad and a director of the Kwantlen Student Association at the time, was an ideal person to launch the publication. He was working as a freelance photojournalist for several newspapers, including the Georgia Straight. And he understood the inner workings of student politics, having been part of a group that exposed corruption within the student association.

After the referendum, Lam became operations manager of a nonprofit society that would publish the paper. He secured office space, wrote a strategic plan, and started recruiting students. However, just when things were looking so bright, tragedy struck. One evening in July, a man slammed Lam into the pavement in New Westminster, landing on him and breaking Lam’s neck.

Lam said he was in “a blur” in hospital during the first few weeks after his accident because of all the painkilling medication. He has since delegated some of the work on the student newspaper to others, but he is still negotiating an autonomy agreement with the student association. He credits his fiancée, Emily Hampton, for remaining at his bedside after the injury and for finding them a wheelchair-accessible apartment.

Hampton, a Kwantlen student, told the Straight that the hardest time was immediately after Lam’s injury. In the hospital, she was given a book to read about spinal-cord injuries. “I had to read to him that he may never move his arms, or he may be on a Ventilator—things like that,” Hampton recalled. “It was pretty nerve-racking.”

Lam said: “She has been amazing. All those big things that she has done have helped allow me to focus—at least a couple of hours a day—to do this.…My job is to get this thing started and to make sure the budget is adhered to. Really, it’s the students that get involved that will be the ones writing it and putting it together.”

He pointed out that it’s hard for Kwantlen students to make connections because they are spread out over four campuses. There is no campus pub and no student union building. “But program-wise,” he said, “it is a great school. I wanted there to be some way to move it forward. Kwantlen could be the next SFU—that little commuter school that nobody in the ’60s thought would be that great until young instructors and rebels crowded onto it.”

Lam estimated that the Runner will have an annual budget of $300,000, with a fair chunk gobbled up by printing bills. Ultimately, the Runner’s success or failure will be determined by the students’ contributions. “It’s bigger than me,” he said. “That’s the really big thing to get across. That’s why I went into journalism: to deal with things that are bigger than me.”

By Charlie Smith

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