UM-Flint's Albin overcomes traumatic brain injury to earn Maize & Blue Scholar Award

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Nicole Albin, Elementary Education Major, Winter 2024 Maize & Blue Scholar

Eleven days before Nicole Albin, a senior University of Michigan-Flint elementary education major, was set to graduate from Chesaning Union High School, she was involved in a severe car accident. She sustained a traumatic brain injury, among other life-threatening injuries. Albin had previously been accepted to Wayne State University, had merit scholarships lined up, and planned to pursue a medical career.

"That moment changed everything," Albin said. "I went from being at the top of my class in high school to being told by a neurologist that the seizures and my traumatic brain injury meant that it would be unlikely I'd be able to manage college courses. It was devastating."

The first year after the accident, Albin required 24-hour care as she healed physically and found the proper medication to help control her seizures. But learning she couldn't pursue her dreams was far more damaging. 

A young woman and elderly man smiling together, looking at the camera
Albin ((left) and her grandfather.

"It crushed my self-esteem and sense of myself as a high achiever," she said. "It was a good six years before I even considered attending school, and my grandfather was instrumental in that." 

Moving from Kentucky back to Michigan to help support Albin, her grandfather encouraged her to challenge herself and try college. Albin enrolled at Mott Community College, beginning a higher education journey that would lead her to UM-Flint. 

"I wouldn't be here now without my grandfather; he poured a lot into me," said Albin. "I started slowly, but then I built up my confidence and just set my mind to do everything they said I would never be able to do."

Albin initially began studying social work at MCC but decided to switch to a general education degree before transferring to a four-year university. She enjoyed her psychology classes and decided to major in that field of study when she transferred to UM-Flint but found that they didn't fit her particular goals. 

"When I looked at what motivated me before the accident, it was that I wanted to help people, and medicine seemed like a great way to do that," Albin said. "While psychology is another way (of helping), it didn't feel hands-on enough, and I also wanted to broaden my education. I figured I'd have to learn about many different things to be a teacher and that it was a great way to help people, so it felt like the right fit."

One of Albin's favorite facets of her UM-Flint education has been the small class sizes that have enabled her to develop a sense of community and connect closely with her professors. 

"Dr. (Melissa) Sreckovic has been particularly inspiring, as she encouraged us to get out of the classroom and get to know each other, and it helped us develop our bond as a cohort," said Albin. "My advisor, Linda Blakey, emailed education students about POWER Camp, a summer day camp for kids with autism spectrum disorder. We kayak, explore a reptile house, do arts and crafts – a little bit of everything. I've been volunteering with POWER for a couple of years, and I think it's helped me become a better educator."

From Sreckovic's perspective, Albin is uniquely positioned to relate to students with many needs. After working with Albin in two courses, the associate professor of education was impressed by Albin's focus on advocating for children with disabilities.

"Nicole's passion for ensuring all students feel safe, included, and have access to the curriculum is both inspiring and contagious," Sreckovic said. "She cares deeply about children and their families and is eager to continue learning to support all students effectively in her future classroom. She will be an excellent educator."

Being named one of only 13 Winter 2024 Maize & Blue Scholars was also a major highlight for Albin, especially given her academic detour and post-accident prognosis. 

"It means everything to me, honestly. I was so honored to be nominated, let alone chosen, and it confirmed that all the hard work and dedication I put into this has paid off," she said.

While Albin's educational journey has been anything but typical, there is one thing she has learned that can benefit any future or current students of UM-Flint.

"Don't give up! I felt overwhelmed plenty of times, but I tried to remind myself that even though it's hard right now, it's just one part of my life, and I just need to stay focused and persevere so that I can do the work that I love," she said. "The small victories, the everyday work, will get you to your goal. I wish I had that perspective when I started college, but it's one I'll bring with me as I pursue my graduate degree."

Looking to the future, Albin is excited to begin teaching elementary school full time and pursue graduate studies in special education. In the short term, however, she has a celebration in her sights.

"Because of my accident, attending my high school graduation was challenging. I had two classmates help me walk because I had just been released from the hospital," Albin said. "It felt like the opportunity to celebrate that accomplishment with my family and friends was snatched from us, so walking in the commencement ceremony at UM-Flint is extra special. This is our second chance."

Kat Oak is the communications specialist for the College of Arts, Sciences, and Education. She can be reached via email at [email protected].