TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — It’s not every day that a University of Alabama student gets to connect with millionaire philanthropists in the British Virgin Islands.
Michaela Sanderson, a second-year undergraduate student in The University of Alabama School of Social Work, was one of six young adults who, through Richard Branson’s Virgin Unite and the Horatio Alger Scholarship Program, got to share their unique stories of overcoming daunting life obstacles to become successful.
Sanderson recently returned from the Virgin Islands after spending four days at “Surviving and Thriving,” which took place on Necker Island, owned by Branson. The leadership conference was a collaboration between Branson, real estate mogul Glenn Stearns, and Stearns’ wife, Mindy.
Sanderson, an Alabama Reach Scholar and Jefferson County native, went through three rounds of essays to earn an invite to the conference. At the conference, she shared her story of adversity, which included a details of her parents’ drug abuse, the loss of her sister, and watching her mother attempt suicide. Sanderson and her twin sister, Danielle, were placed into foster care at an Alabama Baptist Children’s Home in Gardendale. Sanderson and her sister later lived with her mother’s cousin, who took foster parent training courses to keep them in their home, she said.
It’s a story she’s shared before, but rarely does she share it with friends for fear that being a foster child may define her. At Necker Island, with an audience of people who had similar paths to success, she felt at home.
“I find it easier to tell my story to strangers,” Sanderson said. “I live with three roommates, and it wasn’t until the day before the end of school that I shared that with them. When you’re telling it to a stranger, you’ll never see them again. There’s a different comfort level.
“Necker Island was a great experience,” Sanderson added. “We really got to see how our stories touch people’s hearts. There were people crying, and people wanted to know more. People wanted to exchange information so we could keep in touch.”
Sanderson volunteers with Big Brothers and Big Sisters, mentoring at-risk youth. She’s also volunteered at Capstone Village at UA. She hopes to work in social work policy or in addiction counseling.
Sanderson is thankful for the opportunity to network with people who support non-profit agencies and want to keep in touch with her.
“Everyone knows people, and there can be a lot of benefit down the road,” Sanderson said.
The University of Alabama, the state’s oldest and largest public institution of higher education, is a student-centered research university that draws the best and brightest to an academic community committed to providing a premier undergraduate and graduate education. UA is dedicated to achieving excellence in scholarship, collaboration and intellectual engagement; providing public outreach and service to the state of Alabama and the nation; and nurturing a campus environment that fosters collegiality, respect and inclusivity.