Teaching through adversity: ISU education major realizes his dream

December 14, 2009

CLAYTON, Ind. - Dreams do come true. Just ask Indiana State University student J.D. Miller.

Miller, an elementary and special education major from Clayton, is terminally ill with a form of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. All he ever wanted was to get his degree from Indiana State and become a teacher.

"I always knew I wanted to teach. I would play 'school' as a young child with my family and friends. It was confirmed in middle and high School during my job shadowing and cadet teaching experiences."

But in February 2008, Miller's life as a normal college student changed forever, when he was diagnosed with cancer.

While battling cancer, Miller realized he had two families - his biological family and a large, adoptive family of Sycamores.

"Over the past two years, I have been surrounded by my ISU family through the hard times and the good times," he said. "I could always count on my Indiana State friends, faculty, and staff."

Both families saw him through remission, his relapse in October 2008 and his stem cell transplant in March 2009. Miller remained hopeful about his recovery following his transplant and was taking classes via distance education from Indiana State when he received a setback. Doctors informed him the cancer was back and this time it was terminal. He was given weeks to live.

He wasn't aware of it yet, but Miller's dream of getting his degree and becoming an educator were about to come true.

Faculty members from the Bayh College of Education, including dean Brad Balch, visited Miller in October. But this was more than a social call. The group came bearing gifts - a cap and gown donated by Barnes & Noble Bookstore, a blue leather portfolio and a surprise.

That morning, in the living room of his parent's home and surrounded by educators in traditional academic regalia, Balch awarded Miller and honorary bachelor's degree in education. After receiving his diploma and turning his tassel, Miller and his family were presented a large framed diploma, provided by the Office of the President and Provost and the Registrar's Office.

"Indiana State wanted to ensure J.D. knew what a valued member of the student body he is," Balch said. "We are proud to consider him an alumnus."

"A complete professional educator can easily demonstrate the "head, hand, and heart" of teaching," Balch added. "J.D. regularly demonstrated the knowledge, skills, and passion required of great teachers. He has inspired many!"

"I am excited to be an Indiana State alumnus," Miller said at the ceremony's conclusion. "This means so much to me."

His alma mater also established a scholarship honoring Miller for his contributions in education.

The J. D. Miller Leadership in Education Scholarship will be presented to an education junior or senior, nominated by the faculty, who has established themselves as a leader in education while at Indiana State.

"It is truly humbling to know I shall have an impact the lives of future ISU educators," Miller said.

Miller was active in the ISU chapter of the Indiana Student Education Association, Lutheran Campus Ministries and worked as a resident assistant in Rhoads Hall. He is current state president of the Indiana Student Education Association and a student program representative on the National Education Association board of directors.

"J.D. was instrumental in re-energizing our largest student organization for future educators," Balch said. "As a teacher, staying connected with peers through professional organizations is an important retention and professional development opportunity. J.D. understood this as an aspiring educator and ensured organizational affiliation was a cornerstone of our preparation programming as well."

The following Monday, Tony Bennett, Superintendent of Public Instruction for the State of Indiana, visited Miller, bringing with him the 21-year-old's professional educator's license.

"My professional educator's licenses have been my lifelong goal," Miller, who also received a one-day contract from the Greencastle School Corporation, said. "I am proud and honored."

After talking with Miller, Bennett extended an offer to come to Indianapolis and talk to his staff of 230 people. Miller traveled to the Statehouse, where Bennett gave him a personal tour of the statehouse and governor's office.

"I gave a short presentation on my life and my passion for teaching and education," Miller said. "My goal was to just tell my story, share my experiences, and allow for the staff members in the Department of Education to hear a real life story of a young man living to teach and teaching to live!"

Bennett, who realized that Miller excelled in teaching others about life and passion, wanted Miller to convey to his employees the importance of their work in the lives of Indiana schoolchildren. Miller conveyed that message and more.

"He was a master teacher and taught his lessons well," Bennett explained. "There weren't many dry eyes in the room. It was a very emotional experience."

Miller's presentation also convinced Bennett that Indiana State was right on the money in awarding him a degree.

"It was the absolutely the right decision," Bennett said. "This is a man who has a clear and passionate dream to be an educator."

At the end of the presentation, Miller was presented with the state "Distinguished Hoosier" award from the Governor's Office.

"I am truly honored and blessed to be given such a respectable and heartfelt award," Miller said. "Any impact that I have made on the children or families within the communities I have taught or learned in contributes and reflects our great Hoosier state."

Since his graduation ceremony, Miller has returned to the Indiana State campus to visit with the people and place that he has missed. A group of his friends, faculty and staff organized a graduation party for him and he toured the Student Recreation Center. The highlight of his visit was touring University Hall, the new home of the Bayh College of Education. It was the first time Miller had been in the building since it reopened.

Currently, Miller continues his fight against cancer while educating others through his work with the American Cancer Society's Relay for Life and St. Jude Hospital's Up Til Dawn fundraising campaign. He may not be teaching reading or writing, but he's teaching others about adversity, passion and life lessons while advocating for others fighting a similar battle and hoping for a cure.

"I am living with cancer," Miller said. "I am not happy to have cancer, but I am proud of the person I have become from it. I am truly blessed."

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Contact and writer: Paula Meyer, ISU Communications & Marketing, 812-237-3783 or paula.meyer@indstate.edu