By CHUCK ABADIE
Director of Public Relations
Brendan Massey had to face challenges early in his life. The illnesses started as early as the fifth grade.
Massey, 19, a sophomore Phi Theta Kappa student at Pearl River Community College’s Forrest County Center, has had to face challenges that might sideline the average student. In just his short time as a PRCC student, he has been hospitalized six times – once for a heart condition – from one to four days at a time.
His path to adulthood has been littered with diseases and sicknesses that doctors from Jackson to Texas to New Orleans have been unable to provide answers. Even though he missed going to high school, he sees life as a blessing.
It’s an outlook he has maintained with a firmness of purpose, a dogged optimism that’s come despite a laundry list of health conditions. Autoimmune diseases, abdominal migraines, eosinophilic esophagitis and a skin allergy so rare that he is only the 51st person in the world with that diagnosis.
“A lot of times all this would take me to a depressive state,” said Massey. “But I had to work to overcome those feelings.” Between taking as many as eight medications at one time and avoiding dietary items that would set him off growing up, he stayed true to course.
Today, this theoretical mathematics major is a 4.0 student at PRCC. He and his wife, Melinda, a student at William Carey University, have a two-month-old daughter, Raleigh Laura. They live with his parents as they both strive to reach their graduations.
Brendan is employed at the PRCC Student Success Center. He serves as vice president of Phi Theta Kappa, president of Mu Alpha Theta, president of the PRCC Chess Club, got recognized at Nerdnation, PTK’s international convention last April, where he spoke before some 4,000 fellow students. He recently became PRCC’s first student to be awarded another very special scholarship.
He is one of only 10 students to receive PTK’s 2016 Pearson Scholarship for Higher Education, the society’s first renewable scholarship and mentorship program supporting both associate and bachelor degree completion. An independent panel of judges selected recipients from nearly 800 applicants, based on “civic engagement and commitment to their community through service, who have demonstrated persistence and leadership, and have displayed both academic rigor and excellence, selected recipients.”
As a Pearson Scholar, Brendan will receive a $5,000 scholarship to the college of his choice, a Pearson mentor and a medallion during PTK’s 2017 convention. He would like to attend Vanderbilt University.
“Brendan’s strong work ethic is only eclipsed by his enthusiasm for learning,” said Dr. Terri Ruckel, one of Brendan’s mentors at PRCC. “His natural curiosity and interest in research beyond what is required commands the attention of all of his instructors and our administrators as well. His study habits are self-motivated and stem from an intrinsic desire for knowledge. He will end his community college studies with much more than 21 honors credits.”
One might say his journey has been one of rugged determination.
He went to school though the fifth grade when the illnesses began, first was a celiac disease, then migraines in the sixth grade, a nerve disorder in the eighth grade, then the skin allergy in the ninth grade that forced him to stay indoors for a time.
“Eventually, I simply got tired of being sick, so I went out and got a job – or two,” he said with a smile. For a period of time, he worked 40 hours at O’Charley’s and 40 hours at McDonald’s, at the same time. All this while he was working to get his GED from PRCC. He aced the GED tests and began taking academic classes.
His mom convinced him to concentrate more on academics. So he quit the McDonald’s job, went part time at O’Charley’s and got involved in campus activities.
“I first met Brendan when he was led into my office by an Honors student who thought Brendan would benefit from an introduction,” said Dr. Ruckel. “He needed a mentor, because for most of his life, he was too sick to attend public school and as a new college student, he was lost — very bright but lost and socially unprepared.
“Within a short space of time, I perceived Brendan to be an academic prodigy. Spend five minutes talking with him, and you will know just how incredibly bright he is. During that initial visit, I learned that for six years, Brendan had educated himself at home while playing video games… For other entertainment venues, Brendan turned to college math classes on the Internet. He is a testament to their effectiveness, because with no other math studies background, Brendan has now completed Honors Calculus 1-4, earning all A’s along the way.”
As he works his way towards a May 2017 graduation, Massey reflected on all of those who have helped him along the way.
“I have had a wonderful experience here, great teachers who have helped me,” he said. “Both Dr. Ruckels (Terri and Ryan), Dr. (Doug) Donahue, Sharon Clark, Dr. (Jennifer) Mraz, Lisa Palchak – they all served as mentors for me. They all made me realize how much I can do.”
All of this outpouring of support has given Brendan a new outlook. He is off the medicines and watches his diet closely, while starting a family.
“When I look back on all of it, I was very fortunate to come here,” said Brendan. “I have had nothing but non-stop support from this college. It has been a wonderful experience.”
Brendan Massey and his wife, Melinda, with daughter Raleigh Laura.