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New grad finds life lessons in college journey that includes cancer, pandemic

| Judy Berthiaume (story); Jesse Yang (video)

When Brock Orton graduates from UW-Eau Claire this spring he will take with him something that may be even more important than his degree in finance — powerful lessons that already are helping him live a better life.

The most valuable of those life lessons?

Knowing that many people are willing to help if you reach out to them, something that is especially true of the UW-Eau Claire campus community, Orton says.

Two years ago, on the very first day of his spring semester classes, Orton learned that he had testicular cancer.

“I went to all of my classes that day, introduced myself to my professors and told them I wasn’t going to be in class for a while because I have cancer,” Orton says of continuing with his classes as planned despite the cancer diagnosis. “The teachers were super helpful and understood my situation.

“That experience taught me that it’s OK to reach out to people. I was in a rough situation because of my medical appointments, but they all helped me stay on top of my homework and I got through it.”

Two years after his diagnosis, the Baldwin native is cancer free, but now is working through a new set of challenges thanks to COVID-19.

It was difficult when UW-Eau Claire closed its campus and moved classes online, but an even bigger worry was the loss of a part-time job that he depends on to help pay his monthly bills.

Like many Blugolds, his job helped him cover rent and buy groceries. However, because of his health issues, he also has ongoing medical expenses. Staying healthy requires regular doctor visits and a variety of tests, all of which cost money.

“I’m not in a medical crisis but I still have a medical situation,” says Orton. “The medical costs add another factor to everything. I’ve been to the doctor four times this month.”

Racking up medical bills as he is getting ready to start his life after college was a scary prospect, he says.

So, when he learned the UW-Eau Claire Foundation had created a COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund to help students deal with financial issues relating to the pandemic, he decided it couldn’t hurt to ask if they could help with his medical bills.

Much to his relief, the Foundation staff told him he is exactly the kind of student they had intended to support when they created the fund, which has received more than $120,000 in donations from Blugold alumni and friends.

The emergency fund is yet another example of the campus community finding ways to support its students who need assistance, Orton says.

“People here are always willing to help,” Orton says. “If you ask, they will find a way to help you or they will refer you to somebody who can help you. Whatever the problem, whether it's academic, financial or something else, there is someone here who will help. It might be a therapist or advisor or the financial aid office, but if you reach out, you will get the help you need.”

Receiving monies from the emergency fund is helping ease some of his financial concerns, which is allowing him to focus on his academics so he can finish strong in his last semester of college, Orton says.

It also means less debt as he begins his career and life after college.

“I have one less bill to worry about,” Orton says. “I can go into my post-college career without as much worry. Maybe now I can pay off my medical bills before I have to start paying for things like a car. It’s one less thing I need to worry about as I start my adult life.”

Orton will begin his post-graduation life in the Twin Cities, where he will work as a financial analyst at Optum Financial Services, a position he was offered last summer while he was working there as an intern.

“They deal with lot of health care stuff, so it really fits me well,” Orton says of Optum. “Their mission statement says they work to make health care work better for everybody and I agree with their values. I am really looking forward to going to work for a company where the mission hits home with me.”

While now excited to begin his career in finance, when Orton came to UW-Eau Claire he wasn’t sure about a major or future career.

He was drawn to the university because of its reputation for having outstanding academic programs in many areas.

“I came here because I knew UW-Eau Claire would give me a great education in whatever I chose,” Orton says.

He took some general business courses as a freshman, and by the time he was a sophomore, he knew finance was the right academic track for him.

In addition to finding the right career path at UW-Eau Claire, he also found a variety of opportunities to continue with his longtime passions and to discover some new interests.

A longtime music fan, Orton has been a member of the Blugold Marching Band throughout his college career, this year serving as a baritone section leader. He’s also part of the Blugold Athletic Band, which performs at various athletic events.

Through BMB, he made many friends and traveled to other parts of the world. He performed with BMB during two different international tours, one to Southeast Asia and one to Australia and New Zealand, amazing opportunities that added even more to his college experience, he says.

On campus, Orton also was active in business organizations and a long-distance running club.

His goal when seeking out new opportunities, he says, was to take himself outside his comfort zone by participating in a variety of activities — some familiar and some new to him — while meeting people from across campus.

“I learned if you are active and spread yourself self out and try different things, you learn a lot,” Orton says of yet another of the life lessons he’s learned as a Blugold. “I had so many opportunities here. I had the internship, I was active in music, I was in the running club. All those things taught me to not be afraid of something that is different.

“I think in the future, I will say yes to a lot of things at work and in life because of the experiences I’ve had here. I’m not afraid to try new things.”

While cancer and a global pandemic were part of his college experience, Orton says he will continue to focus on the positives.

“It was hard, but it could be a lot worse,” Orton says of his cancer treatments. “I didn’t have chemo. I just know it could be so much worse.”

And, while his last semester at UW-Eau Claire is nothing like he had expected, once again things could be worse, he says.

Since he’s not working, and hanging out with friends isn’t an option because of the virus, he has more time to focus on his studies. He’s digging into questions and topics that interest him more, often going far beyond what’s required for an assignment.

He’s also cooking more and discovering new hobbies, things he wouldn’t normally have time to do during a typical semester.

“COVID has made me slow down and take time to develop new interests,” Orton says. “I’m actually learning a lot from having time to be bored. I’ve slowed down and am enjoying my life.”