ACE Student of the Year St. Nicholas Burrus Earns Degree After Heart Transplant

St. Nicholas Burrus has made a habit out of living up to his name.

“When I was born, the doctor told my parents not to expect me to live through the night,” he said.

He was released from the hospital, but he stopped breathing at home. The doctor then gave him a year, with Burrus going on to outlive the 5- and 7-year life spans predicted for him.

“My mom, Theresa Banken, felt like I was a miracle, so she named me Saint Nicholas,” said Burrus, who went on to meet former President Bill Clinton as a Make-A-Wish Foundation kid.

Burrus has endured a lifetime of health problems, including a terminal heart illness and extreme hearing loss. During a heart surgery at age 18, he even faced clinical death for two minutes before being resuscitated.

Once again, he defied the odds by recovering, joining the workforce and then undergoing successful heart transplant surgery in January 2020.

Fourteen months later, the Bakersfield, California, native graduated with honors from the Bachelor of Arts in Business Administration – Management and Leadership Concentration online program at the University of Maine at Presque Isle (UMPI).

“After my heart transplant, I decided to go back to college,” he said. “I heard about the YourPace program at UMPI during my recovery and said, ‘You know what? I am going to do it.’ Now, I have a degree.

“Even after the transplant, it was hard because of the way you feel with the medicine, chemo, steroids, antivirals and antibiotics. You have mental plateaus in recovery. I worked on part of my degree from the intensive care unit.”

Burrus’ incredible journey also led to a special award. He was named one of two American Council on Education (ACE) Students of the Year in May 2021. The other was University of Texas at El Paso graduate Edwin Duarte.

“It was cool,” Burrus said. “I didn’t expect to get it. I applied for over 1,000 scholarships and heard back from one. When I found out about the ACE Award, I noticed that it is mostly advertised to people in military circles. But they have two student-of-the-year awards — one for corporate, one for military.

“I nominated myself and spoke about my transplant and how ACE helped me get my degree faster. I used ACE to accelerate a lot of my lower-level classes. They especially loved my transplant story and how I was able to overcome everything.”

Special Gifts

Burrus graduated from El Diamante High School in Visalia, California, in 2007. His dream was to attend college and major in political science.

“My grandmother, Patricia Burrus, paid for my first semester at a community college,” he said, noting that as someone who did not graduate from high school, she values education.

But Burrus had to pause his education after a couple of tries due to health issues that called for 18 hours of sleep a day.

In 2015, he landed a position as a document management specialist with Stria. He received his third promotion to information systems support specialist the same year he received the heart transplant.

“Since I started working for my company, I have gravitated more and more toward a business administration degree,” he said. “The program helped me fill in the small gaps in knowledge I had.”

UMPI’s online BBA in Management and Leadership program also fit Burrus’ need for flexibility.

“The online format worked out well,” he said. “Even after my transplant, my employer is not forcing me to go back to the office. They have been very supportive every step of the way. My schedule was even adjusted a little bit so I could synch up with the East Coast a little more if I needed to talk to the professors.”

Burrus found the curriculum in the online bachelor’s degree program applicable to his job.

“I liked that a lot of the business courses focused heavily on modern concepts,” he said. “Our CEO had us attend seminars about these topics over the last six years, so it was like a review to me and very applicable. That helped me accelerate my learning.”

Miracle Maker

Even with all the obstacles Burrus has surmounted to get where he is today, he considers himself far from finished. In fact, he is currently enrolled in the online Master of Arts in Organizational Leadership, UMPI’s inaugural master’s program.

He is looking forward to the 2022 in-person commencement ceremony at UMPI, which will accommodate the classes of ’20 and ’21, too.

“I plan to go,” he said. “Hopefully, I will be done with the master’s program around that time.”

Burrus is thriving with a new heart and the college degree he always dreamed of earning. He looks forward to expanding his career, enjoying outdoor activities and traveling, and continuing to achieve great things.

“I want to keep growing in my own company, which is still young like a startup,” he said. “I was one of the first employees there six years ago. I have been with them through a lot of growth.

“There’s something about being in the midst of a company as it grows and being responsible for some of that growth. It gives me an advantage.”

What Burrus loved best about earning a bachelor’s online at UMPI was the YourPace competency-based model, which allows students to earn a degree on their own timeline.

“Going to college was big for me,” he said. “It was something I wanted to do for myself, but the opportunity never existed because it was always out of reach — until now.”

Learn more about UMPI’s online BBA in Management and Leadership program.