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Stories of Success: Beat the Odds 2017

by Chelsea Cliff
January 24, 2017

BTO 2017

“Trust your life is going to take you where you want to be.” These are wise words from Caleb Ricks, one of the 2017 Beat the Odds recipients. This phrase is fitting for many of us.  Whether facing obstacles big or small, all of us cannot help but worry about where life will take us. For a very special group of students at Rochester Community and Technical College (RCTC), they have had to face some truly difficult situations and in each case, made an inspiring choice to keep moving forward.

On January 12, 2017 the 17th annual Beat the Odds scholarship event was held at the Rochester International Events Center. It was an evening of socializing, dining, and giving. Each of the scholarship recipients had an inspiring story about difficult personal circumstances faced with positivity and persistence.  The selection committee for this year’s RCTC Foundation scholarships faced a truly difficulty task, selecting 5 finalists from 23 truly moving and inspiring entries. This year’s scholarship winners were: Jawaher Binhamoodah, Mikayla Brainard, Jessica Nelson, Caleb Ricks, and Isaac Williams. Each of these individuals received a $2,500 scholarship.

After opening remarks, Hanna Hughes, a 2012 Beat the Odds Scholarship recipient, started off the night with an update on her journey. Her story is incredible – after noticing hip pain in 2010 she was diagnosed with bone cancer. While she did 17 rounds of chemotherapy the tumor did not shrink, due to this lack of response she made the critical decision to amputate her right leg and to do 17 more rounds of chemo. She graduated from Lourdes High School in 2012 and attended the University of Minnesota Duluth, graduating in 2016 with a double major in psychology and communications. At this time, she is 5 years’ cancer free and it has been 7 years since her diagnosis. Another major accomplishment of Hanna’s is making the U.S. Women’s Sled Hockey Team this last year, in late August 2016. It was remarkable to see all the ways a previous recipient continues to rise above challenges and beat the odds.

The first 2017 recipient to be presented their scholarship was Jawaher Binhamoodah. She is determined to get an education in the US but her goal has not been easy to achieve. Jawaher came to the United States in 2010 from a country in the Middle East where educational opportunities for her were scarce.  Life in her new country was not easy.  After leaving an arranged marriage and struggling to make ends meet, she enrolled in RCTC to pursue a nursing degree.  Currently she is working at Madonna Towers as a Certified Nursing Assistant and as a Trained Medication Aide to earn money for college.  Today, she is happily remarried and is thankful to be surrounded by supportive coworkers and friends.

Mikayla Brainard received her scholarship next and she was thankful of those around her for their support. Mikayla went through many difficult situations, from losing her hearing in her left ear as a child to abuse from a family member at a young age. Already in a depressed and anxious state she was bullied in middle school and diagnosed with several chronic conditions at that time. Her two younger sisters have helped her cope with all of the health problems she has had to work through. Today Mikayla is a senior at Stewartville High School, and is pursuing a career in Special Education.  

Jessica Nelson, the third recipient of the night was so happy to be awarded this scholarship. On July 8, 2014 she was in a serious car accident and came close to dying. Authorities believe her front wheel bearing on her car gave out, causing her car to go into the ditch and roll 5 to 7 times, resulting in her legs being crushed by the car. Luckily a farmer found her within minutes of the accident. After being flown to Sioux Falls, South Dakota and spending 18 days in the hospital there she was then referred to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester because of a bacterial infection. The infection eroded 3.5 inches of bone in her right leg. At first they thought she would have to amputate her leg but at the Mayo Clinic they offered her the option of a Taylor Spatial Frame to stretch back the missing bone length. A recent RCTC article described this intense process, “three turns a day, for over 100 days, moving the bone a millimeter a day.”  Her parents had to do the adjustments, and it was so hard to see the pain on Jessica’s face as they would change the settings on the frame. On the night of the Beat the Odds ceremony she stated, “I have come out of it with perspective and wisdom. I still have that joy. No matter how hard the situation.” Jessica is an avid volleyball player and was so happy to be able to play again, and joined the RCTC team as soon as she could.  Even though there is suffering in her situation she doesn’t see it as the bad, but rather the good. She finds that suffering has helped heal her, it encourages her to make the best of her life and that is what continues to motivate her. She hopes to become a Child Life specialist after completing her undergraduate degree at RCTC.

Caleb Ricks received his scholarship following Jessica and made sure to include his sense of humor in his thank you speech, asking “I thought there would be shrimp?” and looking around the room. Caleb is currently a full-time RCTC student with a 4.0 GPA while working two part-time jobs. He went through the challenges of depression and addiction in the past year, due to alcoholism and his father’s death in 2015. Through the support of his brother and a mental health treatment program he began to work towards where he is today. He hopes to become a therapist and does not believe we are defined by our suffering but rather by the means we rise above it.

The last recipient of the night was Isaac Williams, a post-secondary student at RCTC. Isaac has gone through family issues from a young age, has been bullied, and has had a chaotic upbringing. However, he has stepped up as a big brother to help take care of his two siblings and has gone on to have academic success. Isaac worked hard to get good grades at Mayo High School and is now enrolled at RCTC where he can take college courses. He’s also the captain of the robotics team at RCTC, allowing him to develop the skills he needs to pursue a degree in designing software for medical use. Along with all of these activities he is also a lifeguard at the Rochester YMCA. Isaac ended his thank you speech with this statement regarding his favorite hobby and future career, “one of these days the world is going to be ruled by robots, so why not start now.”

Each of these scholarship recipients is truly inspiring and it is an honor for Sterling State Bank to participate as a sponsor of the RCTC’s Beat the Odds banquet, supporting the RCTC Foundation and their mission to expand educational opportunities in Southeastern Minnesota.

Over the past 17 years the RCTC Foundation has given away over $205,000 in scholarships to 133 Beat the Odds recipients. The silent auction portion of last week’s event helps cover costs of the event and any additional proceeds go towards administering these scholarships and help support RCTC programs. 

Sterling State Bank is very proud of these young women and men and the success they have found in their journeys. We are also glad to be a part of this event and look forward to seeing next year’s ceremony and hearing more stories of success in the Rochester community.

See more photos from this year's event here