They beat the odds: Scholarship recipients inspire with their life stories

By Angelina Labonne

“You should hope for courage and try for honor.” — Michael Lewis

Caleb Ricks, Jessica Nelson, Jawaher Binhamoodan, Mayala Brainard and Isaac Williams are the 2017 recipients of the Rochester Community and Technical College Foundation’s 17th annual Beat the Odds Awards. (Photo courtesy of the RCTC Foundation)

When facing a losing battle, there are many paths an individual can take. Paths of anger and resentment are options, or like this year’s recipients of the Beat The Odds scholarship, you can take the path of most resistance and possibly reap quite the reward.

Each recipient was awarded $2,500, which they plan to use for their tuition and expenses, and each has a story of overcoming adversity.

Almost three years ago, Jessica Nelson suffered a series of severe injuries following a car accident. Previous to this accident she was an avid volleyball player and athlete with large aspirations for the future.

That all changed after an infection ravaged through her leg, removing three inches of bone. Jessica was prepared to lose her leg, but after one year of being in the Mayo Clinic’s care, and treatment for the bone, she is able to not only keep her leg but also go back to playing volleyball.

“I was told my leg healed more than ever imagined, allowing me to return to the sport I love with not only a new perspective on volleyball but a whole new perspective on life as well,” Nelson said.

This positivity and new perspective is what lands her on the scholarship recipient list, but her plans to help others and her faith in God is what makes Jessica have such a bright future. She plans to receive her Liberal Arts degree from RCTC and go on to achieve her bachelor’s and master’s in order to become a child life specialist.

“Hopefully I can inspire some people and maybe show people that suffering can be good with the right mind set,” Nelson said. “Now I face each day and each struggle with a new outlook. Trying to remember every day that time is so precious so why not spend every second with a positive attitude growing as a person through life’s ups and downs.”

Mikayla Brainard

Another recipient this year was Mikayla Brainard. Like Nelson, her biggest obstacle came from her health. Brainard was diagnosed with a tumor at age 3, causing her to lose her hearing. In the years that followed she not only suffered many physical and mental health obstacles, but so did other members of her family. Mikayla has two younger sisters, one of whom was born with multiple birth defects and was hospitalized or at appointments frequently. This left her with a lot of responsibility at home to help out her parents. This proved even more difficult for her when she was diagnosed with Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome and Fructose Malabsorption in her sophomore year of high school, leaving her mostly bedridden. While these health issues were something Brainard would need to adjust to, she was already all too familiar with some mental health diagnoses, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression, which were the result of sexual abuse and bullying over social media.

With all of these factors against you, one might question how to move forward; Brainard reassures us by saying, “I’ve struggled with and overcome a lot in my 18 years of life, but without these things happening in my life I wouldn’t be as strong, wise, and down to earth as I am today.”

Her drive to overcome the near impossible will no doubt help her be an inspiration for years to come. Brainard is a PSEO student and coaches cheerleading. She plans to attend RCTC next year.

“I plan on becoming an early/middle childhood special education teacher,” Brainard said, “and I’m also looking into doing something with music.”

Both of these women have overcome circumstances that most students could not dream of facing, and they have come out on the other side more well-rounded and positive than ever. Along with that positivity comes the desire of both recipients to help others. When asked what advice they would give to struggling youth, both provided uplifting and wise answers that can only come from those that have seen adversity and proven it can be beaten.

“My key advice that I give to anyone is to just keep pushing,” Brainard said. “Don’t give up on yourself, your dreams, and don’t hold back from the potential that you have. After hitting rock bottom so many times, it may feel like it won’t get better. But it does, and it will. You just have to keep pushing through.”

Similarly, Nelson said, “To remember these struggles are shaping you into a new person with new perspectives and character. That you will gain perseverance through struggle and empathy.”

The tunnel may be long, but there will always be a light at the end. Whatever struggles you are facing today will pass just as Brainard’s and Nelson’s did. RCTC and the Beat The Odds foundation work to provide struggling students with the opportunity to take what they have gone through and reap a positive reward. Students who have faced challenges at home or in the classroom are encouraged to apply.

The other three recipients not able to be interviewed were Isaac Williams, Caleb Ricks and Jawaher Binhamoodan.

Isaac Williams

According to the program provided at the awards ceremony, Williams struggled with family issues since he was a child, growing up in a household with discord, serious illness and fear. He ran away from home once and spent some time living with his grandmother. Despite the chaos, he took his responsibility as a “big brother” seriously and took care of his siblings.

Williams is a Mayo High Student attending RCTC through the Post Secondary Enrollment Options program. He is captain of his robotics team, which allows him to develop his skills in coding and software. He looks forward to designing software for medical use.

Caleb Ricks

Ricks is a full-time student at RCTC with a 4.0 grade-point average, and works at two part-time jobs.  His path has been difficult, overcoming mental illness and addiction.  He relapsed into drinking in November 2015, followed shortly by his father’s unexpected death, when Ricks said he “went downhill very, very quickly.”

He started binge drinking, and moved from motel to motel. When he returned home, his brother, Marshall, took him to the psychiatric ward at a local hospital, and he was released three days later. He immediately began drinking again.  His brother took him back to the psychiatric ward, and then Ricks entered an inpatient mental health treatment program in January 2016. He began attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, got a positive sponsor, and went through the 12-step program. Caleb completed the treatment program in 45 days, and then with help from an Olmsted county caseworker, entered Cronin Home, a sober living facility.

Today, Ricks is building a life in recovery from addiction and mental illness. He volunteers at a hospice and serves as a sponsor for others in recovery. He attends AA on a regular basis. He credits friends and family members, but especially his older brother, Marshall, who has “saved my life more times than I can count.”

Jawaher Binhamoodan

Binhamoodan entered a marriage arranged by her family to an older man she had never met.  Originally from Kuwait, she came to the United States in 2010 on a “wife visa” because her husband was an American citizen. She wanted an education but was discouraged by her family and her husband. She learned that she could obtain a divorce in the United States without anyone’s permission.

Her divorce became final in 2013, the same year she received her green card. Binhamoodan has worked more than three years to save money for college. She is a certified nursing assistant and a trained medical assistant at Madonna Towers. Now married to a man she chose, she plans to continue her education to become a surgical nurse.


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