A student’s journey through college, cancer and others’ kindness
This fall, University of Nebraska at Omaha senior Michael Brooks posed for photos with a group of students much like himself: smart, driven, hardworking.
These students are part of the College of Business Administration Scholars Academy, a community of ambitious and high-achieving students.
But, unlike other academy students, Brooks also is a member of a more exclusive group, one he joined at age 11 and is still a member of today.
In 2008, Brooks was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer — so rare, in fact, he was one of only five children in the United States with an inflammatory myofibroblastic tumor at the time.
He was in sixth grade and embarking on a tender age.
“I was just kind of hitting adolescence, when you start to care about your hair and your appearance, and I was basically a walking skeleton,” he said.
Brooks persevered through multiple rounds of chemotherapy and a clinical trial. He and his family were encouraged when the tumor, located in his shoulder, began to shrink. But after 18 months, the reduction plateaued.
Brooks dealt with the pain caused by the tumor and thrived. He went on to Creighton Preparatory High School in Omaha, where he was captain of the speech and debate team and played soccer. It’s also where his interest in business and law took hold.
During Brooks’ senior year in high school, he applied to the UNO CBA Scholars Academy, a fairly new entity at the time. He was selected as one of 20 in the academy’s second cohort, which made him eligible for a renewable annual scholarship.
“I wanted to stay local for college, especially for my undergraduate work,” he said. “Financially, my family wasn’t in the best place, so the fact that I was offered a scholarship and could be part of this program made the decision easy.”
Brooks likes the sense of community that the academy offers and how hard the program pushes him.
“What’s really nice is they make the classes harder, and they expect us to be at that level,” he said. “They want to set us up to succeed later on.”
Brooks made the most of his opportunities the first two years. He interned at a long-term investment firm and worked as Creighton Prep’s speech and debate coach while taking a full load of classes. But his path took a sharp turn just before his junior year.
In the summer of 2018, Brooks went in for an annual scan of his tumor. The doctor found that the tumor, which hadn’t grown in three years, had almost doubled in size, spreading into his back.
“I had noticed more pain, but it’s one of those things where it’s affected me for so much of my life, I didn’t think much about it,” he said.
Brooks underwent a sectional biopsy to remove part of the tumor, but it quickly grew back. He started chemotherapy, again.
While he was able to maintain a full class load, he had to quit his job. “Once I restarted chemotherapy,” Brooks said, “it was a whole different beast for me to manage both a job and school.”
But the reality of losing the income he earned concerned him. His mother had just lost her job, his insurance didn’t cover all of his medical expenses, and he had to maintain a strong GPA to keep his scholarship.
Brooks reluctantly reached out to the academy’s director, Bethany Hughes, for assistance.
“I’m not one who likes asking for help,” he said.
Hughes was able to find financial assistance, thanks to the generosity of donors, who had established a scholarship fund at the University of Nebraska Foundation to help CBA students at UNO facing unexpected circumstances.
“No one, when dreaming of going to college to be a lawyer or an accountant or a CEO, thinks, ‘Man, in college I’m going to have this really unexpected turn of events that’s going to impact my pursuit of a dream,’” Bethany said.
“These scholarships are helping students who would otherwise not be able to get an education because they’re facing scenarios that they couldn’t have planned for.”
Brooks remains grateful for the support.
“When I was going through chemotherapy and also trying to maintain a good GPA (he earned a 3.75 that semester), it was a weight off of my shoulders knowing that because I couldn’t work that semester, I wasn’t going to lose everything,” Brooks said.
“I want to express my gratitude to these donors, but I’m also going to prove that I deserved it,” he said. “Success is how you can ultimately show your gratitude.”
Brooks is now focused on graduation and applying to law schools. His sights are set on a career in litigation, ideally in Nebraska.
“Right now, I’m fine,” he said. “I’m healthy. I’m taking 18 credit hours and working 60 hours a week to make sure I have saved up money in case this happens again.”
But, as Brooks has done since sixth grade, he’s not dwelling on his medical challenges. Instead, he’s looking to his future, which appears to be bright.
“We love what we did,” Sharon Holyoke said. “And we just hope we leave the world a better place than we started.”