Brandon Selz ’20 chose UNC for financial reasons. But what he’s gained has been invaluable as he sought ways to use his education to make a difference in the world.

“I came to UNC because it gave me the most financial opportunity. I was really looking to get a degree in Biology but also still maintain low debt, if any. Once I got to UNC though, I fell in love,” he says.

And he’s never looked back. “I would have chosen no other university other than UNC. The amount of opportunity I’ve had here has been immense.”

A first-generation college student from Aurora, Brandon was both a Reisher Scholar and McNair Scholar. He graduated this spring with his bachelor’s degree in Biology, with minors in Chemistry and Psychology and a certificate in Brewing Science.

His scholarships have had an impact on him by giving him the chance to think beyond his undergraduate degree and reach his full potential.

“I’m not sure if I’d have had the ambition to look forward to graduate school just because of how much debt I would have accrued,” he says. “I probably would have just graduated and moved forward and worked in a lab somewhere. Scholarships gave me a scope that I can move forward without having to take on debt, but still be able to reach my goals.”

The Reisher Family Scholarship Program helped support Brandon’s education and mirrored his goals to give back to the community. Reisher is specifically aimed at helping recipients who show promise of making a future contribution to the community through service, leadership, work or unique experiences.

“I initially was a pre-med student with the idea that I always wanted just to help people,” he says. “I went into the medical field a bit as a Certified Nursing Assistant but I didn’t like the fleeting experience that a lot of medical care is. It’s very in-and-out in 10 minutes. So, although I’d be helping people, I really didn’t feel a personal connection.

”That’s when the McNair Scholars program, designed to prepare undergraduate students for doctoral studies through involvement in research and other scholarly activities, also helped shape his career path.

“McNair provides scholarships for people of color, women who are not represented in STEM and other fields, as well as low-income students. That’s where I fall in. I’ve really had a lot of help from the staff of McNair, honing me for graduate school, and helping teach me those skills with a lot of compassion.”

Brandon had the opportunity to do research while working with Andrea James, Ph.D., assistant professor in Biology. Working with James he was trying to understand the mechanisms involved with colobomas, which are related to congenital blindness.

“Dr. James has been one of the biggest influences on me in my undergraduate work. She specifically worked with me on my research and helped me with not only the graduate process, but also understanding what graduate school is going to be like and giving me tips for my interviews, just trying to make sure I’m successful,” Brandon says.

Through his time working with James, he became intrigued by the idea that research would allow him to make a difference. “I’d be making a big impact in the long run with either helping develop cures or looking at the mechanisms that are causing disease.”

Brandon will start his doctoral work at University of California-Davis this fall. “I’m trying to look specifically at environmental factors and how they upset development or cellular processes. I have a personal link with caring for the environment as a biology major, but I also just really think that there are a lot of pollutants that are getting worse in our environment. I want to be able to take action against that and help make an active effort.”

And, along with research, there’s another reason he’s interested in pursuing his doctorate. “I also want to be able to work as a mentor with my research with graduate students or undergrads. I’m trying to give back for all the opportunity I’ve been given.”