St Nicholas Burrus has overcome many obstacles in his life—hearing loss, a heart transplant, and even death—but getting his college degree after being told his whole life that he couldn’t do it is an especially sweet victory. Burrus, 31, is from Bakersfield, California, and will graduate during the University of Maine at Presque Isle’s 112th Commencement on Saturday, May 8 with his Bachelor of Arts in Business Administration with a Management and Leadership concentration.
Burrus is one of the many students who has taken advantage of UMPI’s YourPace program, which allows students to work at their own pace in a completely online environment. The work is done asynchronously, meaning students don’t have to show up for specific class times online: during the 8-week sessions, they can do a consistent amount of work each day, or put in long hours on nights and weekends, or take a hybrid approach depending on their schedules.
“I honestly never dreamed I would get this far,” Burrus said. “My entire life I was told I wouldn’t even make it to middle school or high school, let alone college. I was always so sick. Now with a new heart and a new lease on life, I have been able to achieve my goal of graduating from college with the help of everyone at UMPI.”
Burrus grew up with a terminal heart illness and was extremely hard of hearing. He was often held back by those who assumed his physical condition was an outward sign of his mental capacity. But despite enduring several major surgeries as a child and missing large chunks of school growing up, he self-taught through books and reading subtitles from History Channel shows and educational documentaries.
“Most kids grow up playing in parks, riding bikes and learning sports, but I grew up in hospital beds in hospitals across California,” Burrus said.
Sick enough to be granted a wish from the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Burrus was able to personally meet President Bill Clinton at the White House. Much work was done to save his natural heart, and while he survived far longer than anyone expected, it was far from the life his peers were living.
“I tried learning at a local community college a few times, but, being so sick meant making it to class times was hard,” he said. “At 18 years old, others my age were starting their work lives or college careers, but I was so sick that I would sleep 18 hours a day because my heart was in extreme failure.”
That year, Burrus had another major operation to extend his life, but it had many complications and, while doctors were able to resuscitate him, he was officially dead for two minutes. Pulling through that experience was incredibly difficult, but Burrus still found a way forward. He eventually landed a position with his current company, Stria, LLC, and found a team incredibly supportive of his life journey.
About two years ago, things really changed for Burrus. Working with Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, he started a different approach with his medications and ultimately made the decision to seek a heart transplant. Just five months later, he got the call. It was a high-risk heart, but he accepted. A network of family and friends saw him through from getting to the hospital—a three-hour drive—to post-surgery and beyond. Recovery was incredibly harsh as his body tried to reject the heart. He was in the ICU for more than a month and had to go through months of rehabilitation afterward. As part of a heart transplant, a person’s vagus nerve is severed, which effects the body’s ability to control its temperature and heart rate; Burrus had to learn major workarounds because of his brain’s inability to communicate to the nerves in his new heart.
It was while he was recovering that the pandemic hit, and though it made life harder in many ways, it opened up a new doorway to college. Through internet searching, he learned about the UMPI YourPace program, and once he met the people involved, he was hooked.
“One of the first people at UMPI I interacted with was Shea Cushman who was extremely happy to answer my many, many, many questions. Shea helped me make contact with Jessica Winslow and Mary Kate Barbosa,” he said. “Mary Kate was the first person I had a true in-depth conversation with about my goals and what I hoped to achieve at UMPI. She helped gather the necessary medical documentation about my condition so that programs could be easily altered to account for my needs. Mary Kate’s connections were instrumental in helping me make this dream come true.”
Burrus cites others who supported him—Jessica Winslow, who tracked his rapid progress and helped with troubleshooting; Professor Carolyn Dorsey, who offered an alternative for the speaking/hearing component of her class; and Professor Anabela Ançã Mendes, who redesigned her entire French Course to be deaf-friendly.
It took many late nights because of how fast he wanted to move through the coursework, but now that he’s tackled his Bachelor’s degree, Burrus is ready for more. He’s planning to take a few days to rest up before getting to work on UMPI’s new Master’s degree program in Organizational Leadership, which is also a YourPace program. The program’s next start date is May 10. And he has big plans for when he completes his Master’s work.
“I want to be able to afford to take care of myself, my home, and my family without scraping by, paycheck-to-paycheck. My family has been there every step of my journey and now I want to be the one there for them,” he said.
From a Make-A-Wish kid to a primary bread winner for his family? There couldn’t be a sweeter victory.