As she boarded a plane back home from Texas on Sunday, reflecting on the Dr. Pepper Tuition Giveaway was a lot easier for Rachel Burns.
Ms. Burns thought about how doctors predicted cystic fibrosis — a genetic disease that causes persistent lung infections — would kill her by the time she reached 18. Now a 20-year-old sophomore pharmacy student at the University of Toledo, she remembered applying for the competition in October and being accepted just a few days before her birthday. She recalled hours of practicing at her alma mater, Springfield High School, and at Toledo’s indoor training facility between the Rockets’ football practices this fall.
Of course, Ms. Burns also remembers the feeling of looking up into the halftime crowd at AT&T Stadium and seeing thousands of faces. In front of a nationally televised audience watching the Big 12 Championship, she passed 16 footballs through a hole carved into a tall Dr. Pepper can replica. Moments later, officials handed her a check for $100,000.
“When we got closer and closer to halftime, the nerves definitely started setting in,” Ms. Burns said. “It was a little bit of a mental game, but it was something that you can never prepare for.”
The contestants are selected after submitting their stories and answering the prompt, “Tell us how you’ll change the world in 350 words or less,” according to Dr. Pepper’s official rules. Ms. Burns also created a video in her application, detailing her financial needs and how she wanted to pursue pharmaceutical work after being diagnosed with cystic fibrosis.
“This takes a huge burden off my family’s shoulder,” Ms. Burns said. “My parents were unable to finish college because they unfortunately ran out of money. They supported me to help me follow my dreams ... Dr. Pepper has definitely alleviated some of that fear of not being able to afford college.”
Almost overwhelmingly, friends and family have all reached out to say congratulations since Ms. Burns won the competition. The most unique message came from an unknown mother of a cystic fibrosis patient, who said her daughter was so inspired to see Ms. Burns win the challenge.
Still, celebrations will have to be brief: Ms. Burns has three exams this week, so her family will go out for dinner and her friends will buy some Dr. Pepper. It was also her mother’s birthday Saturday, so she’s also looking forward to a reunion hug.
“It was definitely a community effort,” Ms. Burns said. “Everyone was just so excited that someone from Toledo was competing in this, and the support was amazing. I’m excited to get back home ... and hopefully pass my exams.”
Contact Jimmy Miller at email@example.com, 419-724-6050, or on Twitter @miller_jimmy.
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