Branden Mills’ journey to graduation is one filled with firsts.
Mills, a senior sociology and psychology double major at Midland University, is a Nebraska transplant. He grew up in Delaware before moving to Nebraska as a senior in high school to attend Millard North High School in Omaha.
“Coming from the East Coast and moving to Nebraska for my senior year was something that I thought was going to be really hard and it turned out for the better,” he said.
Graduating high school and earning a scholarship for track and field at Midland University, Mills was on his way to becoming the first in his family to graduate from college.
“After high school, I thought that was it for me,” he said. “I guess it just makes me stand out in a way that I’m just kind of blessed to be in a position that I am when I come from a family that never really had the opportunity to do any of this stuff.”
The transition from Delaware to Nebraska was a culture shock for Mills. During his freshman year at Midland, Mills’ parents decided to move back to the East Coast.
“I thought I would finish my freshman year here and then get out and transfer,” he said. “But, I found my place here and I think it really helped me become the person that I want to be and then I got accustomed to all the people and how loving of a family it is here.”
Mills’ decision to continue his education at Midland was based on the relationships he created with teachers and other students on campus.
“Just to have people here that make me feel like a student was important,” he said. “Everybody knows each other. It makes me feel good about the fact that a lot of people know me by name and a lot of people just know me because of me being me.”
During his time at Midland, Mills also met his girlfriend. He said that relationship helped him find a second home in Nebraska.
“She really stabilized my whole time being here in Nebraska and has helped become like a second family,” he said.
During the last year of Mills’ time at Midland, he found his own way to give back to the university.
Mills helped found Midland University’s first Black Student Union and served as the group’s first president. The union has helped bring Black students at Midland together, while also taking time to stand for important societal issues.
Last summer, Mills and members of the BSU helped organize two protests in Fremont following the arrest and death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The peaceful protests brought together hundreds of Fremonters to push for solutions to inequality and police brutality.
In November, the union also helped organize a project to construct a 40-foot mural in Fremont to represent equality and efforts to bring different cultures together.
The mural shows arms crossed together in front of flags from varying countries. The interlocked arms come from a number of different ethnicities, including white, Black and Hispanic people.
Mills said the decision to bring the BSU to Midland’s campus was rooted in his own experience as a freshman.
“Coming here was a whole culture shock and I think students that come from out of state or are coming from a different area needed something in that sense to get the ball rolling,” he said. “It shows people that you don’t have to go through this culture shock and feel like you have people who support you.”
On top of that, Mills said he wanted to leave behind a legacy for himself at Midland.
“I’ve been lucky to make people know that anything that you want to achieve here is possible,” he said.
Mills has also been forced to adjust to the challenges introduced by the COVID-19 pandemic during the last year.
Last March, Midland became one of the first universities in the country to close its doors following exposure to the virus at a Special Olympics basketball tournament at the Fremont Family YMCA.
The tournament brought together almost 500 athletes from eastern Nebraska to compete.
The tournament also included 65 student volunteers from Midland University’s football team.
The adjustments Mills was forced to make during the pandemic helped him become a more resilient student.
“As seniors, we strived to continue to do our best and even though we went through these hardships it really made us strong and resilient and I think that’s really what stands out about our senior group,” he said.
Looking back at his time at Midland, Mills said he will remember the relationships he created with friends, faculty and staff at the university.
“They’ve really molded me into the person who goes out and does beyond what I can do and they helped me strive for the most that I can achieve,” he said.