Giving voice to struggle: Student hit by stray bullet gets degree at UNM - Albuquerque Journal

Giving voice to struggle: Student hit by stray bullet gets degree at UNM

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

Danyel Muñoz woke in the hospital with his mother, father, sister and the resident clergyman standing at his bedside. The tube down his throat made it impossible to talk, but he felt an urgent need to communicate. He signaled for a pen and paper.

“I was definitely trying to tell them something; I wasn’t just rambling – I was cognitive and aware of the situation and telling them how I felt,” Muñoz said last week, recalling the turbulent journey he took en route to his college graduation Saturday.

His situation was pretty dire. Muñoz had undergone several hours of emergency surgery after arriving at the hospital with a gunshot wound.

In the wee hours of April 9, 2016, he had been leaving a party that had been shut down after a fight. He was walking to his car when he heard gunfire and felt a stray bullet hit his neck.

It pierced his jugular. Blood gushed. A friend – one of three others also hit – rushed to his aid, removing his own shirt and tying it around Muñoz’s neck. Doctors told him the move likely saved Muñoz’s life.

As he awoke, he started scribbling notes to his parents in squished handwriting, telling them he loved them.

“I don’t even know how I was writing,” he said, “but I was writing.”

Writing – albeit the more in-depth kind required in college – would become key to his recovery, a way to navigate his seesawing emotions and withstand the aftermath. He was out of the hospital after a week, but with a voice so severely weakened he could barely be heard.

Muñoz was in his sophomore year at the University of New Mexico at the time. On Saturday, just over two years after the incident, the 25-year-old picked up his bachelor’s degree at UNM’s commencement ceremony.

Muñoz and his family say his college studies and writing – he majored in English with a minor in psychology – reinvigorated him after a near-death experience that left him angry and confused.

Danyel Muñoz (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

“That was the biggest thing that helped – being able to write about it in class,” he said.

Muñoz’s mother, Jasmine Branch, said her son has always prioritized school. He consistently earned A’s.

Still, she recalls worrying that the shooting would derail him, that the frustration might consume him. A musician and rapper, he felt his voice loss had stolen part of his identity. He became increasingly withdrawn.

“It was pretty rough for the first couple of months,” Branch said.

Muñoz was committed to finishing his degree. He had just returned to college the previous fall after taking off a few years to work full time. He did not want to stop. Even when professors urged him to work from home, he insisted on attending classes; as an aspiring teacher, he considered observing his professors part of his own education.

He returned to class within a few weeks, even though he could barely speak above a strained whisper. He struggled to engage with professors and peers, yet managed to complete that semester’s courses and stay on track for his degree.

But Muñoz never felt so emotionally unstable. When the anger subsided, the depression set in.

His father, having spent his own career in the military, said he recognized the signs of post-traumatic stress in his son.

While he never doubted Danyel’s intellectual capacity, Juan Muñoz worried about his emotional fragility.

School, Juan said, proved a great diversion – a way for his son to “think about things besides the event itself.”

But the experience worked its way into his school life, often for the better.

“Everything he was going through – (he was) able to document it in some kind of way and talk about it,” Juan Muñoz said of his son’s writing.

Danyel Muñoz also openly discussed it with some instructors and remembers a pivotal conversation with one professor as he wrestled with his belief that men aren’t supposed to cry.

“I went and talked to him about a paper and ended up breaking down and telling him how I felt and a lot of stuff I was going through,” Muñoz recalled.

“He told me if anyone has ever told you that crying disqualifies you from being a man, they were misguided. That stood with me. … After he told me, that is when I became open with people and talking to people.”

His psychology classes, meanwhile, helped him understand that his reaction to his situation was normal.

At the same time, he attended vocal therapy, eventually regaining his full voice over a 1½-year period.

Tamiko Lemberger-Truelove from UNM’s College of Education taught Muñoz in several courses. She says he was a thoughtful student who became increasingly comfortable contributing to discussions over the past two years, especially regarding issues like economic inequality.

He is “a determined and resilient young man who has overcome and triumphed over adversity,” she said in an email, adding that she was grateful to have taught him. “I cannot wait to see the great things he will and can accomplish in his life.”

Muñoz said he wants to eventually move overseas to teach English. Though he hasn’t made specific plans, he is researching programs that would allow him to start teaching Chinese students over the internet.

Muñoz describes his state of mind today as one of “peace.”

Branch said she sometimes can’t believe her son made it to this point.

“I didn’t think this was even going to be possible,” she said of his graduation, tearing up at the thought. “To see him do it is just amazing. A lot of other people would’ve just given up, and he didn’t.”

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