Overcoming adversity

Ian Diaz Brannon, a freshman economics major, had to give up his spot on the high school tennis team when doctors found a tumor in his leg. The benign mass was removed a few years ago. Now, Diaz Brannon is playing on UM's club tennis team. Photo: TJ Lievonen/University of Miami.
By Janette Neuwahl Tannen

Ian Diaz Brannon, a freshman economics major, had to give up his spot on the high school tennis team when doctors found a tumor in his leg. The benign mass was removed a few years ago. Now, Diaz Brannon is playing on UM's club tennis team. Photo: TJ Lievonen/University of Miami.

Overcoming adversity

By Janette Neuwahl Tannen
Ian Diaz Brannon is the recipient of the Jenkins Scholarship, a full-tuition scholarship awarded to ’Canes who have dealt with challenging hardships.

When Ian Diaz Brannon was 12 years old, he was in South Carolina visiting his grandparents for Christmas when his father began to notice strange bruises on his arms and legs. His aunt, who is a nurse, urged her brother-in-law to get it checked out.

Two days later, his father was in the hospital. Ian and his twin sister Maya soon learned that their father had been diagnosed with a rare, yet very severe form of leukemia. The odds were not favorable. At the time, statistics indicated that 40 percent of patients with acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL) die within two weeks.

“It was quite a shock,” recalled Diaz Brannon, a University of Miami freshman economics major and Jenkins Scholar. “He went to the gym the day he got diagnosed, and at that point we had never experienced a family member dying. So we were pretty naïve about how serious the situation was.”

Yet Diaz Brannon’s family promptly moved from Honduras, where they were living for his father’s job, to South Carolina, where his dad was undergoing chemotherapy. Soon after, the family moved again. This time to Atlanta, where his father was part of a medical trial for APL at Emory University. Luckily, after many months of hospital visits, his father’s blood tests started to improve. Diaz Brannon’s dad is now celebrating six years of remission.

However, the visits to doctors and hospitals were not quite over for Diaz Brannon. A few years later, while he was in high school, a nagging pain in his leg turned out to be a tumor that would have to be removed surgically. Fortunately, the tumor was benign, so his road to recovery was shorter than his father’s. Yet it still required him to do physical therapy and to give up his spot on the tennis team.

“My grades slipped that year,” he said, adding that he was still able to earn straight A’s, and got back into tennis after a long break.

Still, Diaz Brannon views his father’s illness and his own surgery as hurdles that later shaped his life positively.

“It helped me mature earlier than I would have without that experience,” he said.

For his responsible nature during what was a difficult adolescence, Diaz Brannon’s high school counselor recommended him for the George W. Jenkins Scholarship at the University of Miami. The very selective scholarship is funded by Publix Super Markets Charities in honor of Publix founder George Jenkins, and covers tuition, fees, and housing for incoming freshman who have overcome significant adversity and demonstrate financial need, as well as an interest in serving others. Diaz Brannon is one of three students in this year’s class selected for the scholarship, said Chris Doell, director of programs of academic excellence in the Office of Academic Enhancement. Other past Jenkins scholars have dealt with crime, violence, poverty, substance abuse, illness, and other difficulties in their home lives, yet were able to keep up with their classwork in high school.

“These are strong kids who are extremely resilient and they have been able to focus on their academics even in the face of life’s greatest hardships,” Doell said.

Currently, Diaz Brannon is one of a dozen students at the University on a Jenkins scholarship, and said the award helped attract him to the University. As part of the scholarship, Diaz Brannon has also started attending academic advising sessions every two weeks, which he said are helpful for reinforcing time management and study skills. He quickly joined the club tennis team and wants to join the scuba club, as well as to become an alumni ambassador.

Diaz Brannon recently decided to minor in mathematics, and hopes he can study abroad, following in the footsteps of his parents, who both majored in international business.

“I’m very grateful to Publix, so I want to do good things with this scholarship,” he said. “UM has been great so far, and my goal [afterward] is to go to a strong graduate school or to law school.”

To learn more about other scholarships at University of Miami, visit the Office of Academic Enhancement’s website or the Undergraduate Admissions Office.