When hard work is not enough

Thanks to donor support, Nicole McMillan's mom was able to see her overcome uncertainty and continue her studies

Stephanie Bailey - 28 June 2018

In the span of a year, Nicole McMillan's mom was diagnosed with terminal cancer, her dad was laid off and a wildfire devastated their hometown, Fort McMurray. But when times were tough, donors were there to help.

Hunkered down in the health sciences library, business student and Fort McMurray, Alta., native Nicole McMillan was having a hard time studying for her statistics final exam. Her cellphone vibrated next to a stack of books on the table. Every buzz filled her with dread. McMillan's mom had late-stage pancreatic cancer, and her family didn't know how much longer she would live. Every incoming call could be the call.

"The whole time during exams I was thinking, is she going to make it? What's going to happen with my exams - will they have to be deferred? How does that all work?"

By this point, McMillan had learned that life doesn't get put on hold when you become a student. A series of devastating, unforeseen events during the first few years of undergrad had made it increasingly difficult for her to continue her studies. But she was tenacious, and with the help of donors, was able to stay on track.

1 in 3: Dollars of total undergraduate student financial support provided by donors

47: Students who have received support from the Disaster Relief Bursary since 2016

500: Approximate number of U of A students who have been affected by the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire

57%: Portion of total donor-funded endowments that provide scholarship, award and bursary support for students

After her mom's diagnosis, McMillan returned to campus to start her first year in the Alberta School of Business to pursue her dream of becoming a lawyer. She took on a full course load and maintained a 3.9 grade point average, while juggling several volunteer commitments. As a mental health support volunteer in residence at Lister Centre, it wasn't unusual for McMillan to get a knock on her door at 2 a.m. Some students were grappling with bad news from back home, while others were stressing about a paper that was due the next day. McMillan was always there to listen.

"My mom encouraged me to live my life to the fullest," she explains. "She told me, 'life doesn't stop because I get sick.'"

But then things got worse at home. In January of that year, McMillan's father was laid off due to low oil prices, making it difficult for the family to pay her mother's medical bills. Not long after, a massive wildfire hit Fort McMurray, forcing the largest evacuation in Alberta's history. When her family was finally able to return home, McMillan took on four jobs to pay for school and help make ends meet at home. Most days she'd wake up before dawn to get some contract marketing work done before cutting grass for up to 10 hours a day. No matter how hard she worked, though, it just wasn't going to be enough to cover the next year's tuition. The future looked bleak.

That's when McMillan finally received some much-needed support.

McMillan received the donor-funded Richard Y. Charlton Memorial Leadership Award, recognizing her leadership and contributions to the university community. Preference is given to a student who has demonstrated perseverance in a challenging situation, making McMillan an ideal candidate for the award. When she heard the good news, she burst into tears and immediately called her mom.

She was further buoyed by receiving the U of A's Disaster Relief Bursary, a donor-supported award created in response to the Fort McMurray wildfire. Along with almost 90,000 other people, around 500 current and prospective U of A students were affected by the fire. To date, the bursary has been awarded to 47 students.

"Receiving these awards changed everything for me. I couldn't have worked and maintained my GPA. My dreams of going to law school would have been shattered," she says.

Thanks to donor support, McMillan was able to go back to school for her third year and secure an internship in human resource management at Syncrude in Fort McMurray - invaluable work experience she hopes to translate into a future career in employment law. Most importantly, her mom had the chance to witness and celebrate all of these achievements.

"Because of these awards, my mom was able to know that I got this internship and see before she passed away where my career was going to take me," says McMillan. "If I had to take time off school, that would never have happened.

"I couldn't have done it without donor support."

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