Indiana State University Newsroom

Indiana State student awarded a Danny Thomas Leadership Scholarship

August 28, 2009

TERRE HAUTE, Ind. - Some people are born leaders. Others become stronger leaders while overcoming adversity.

Such is the case for J.D. Miller, an Indiana State University student who was recently awarded the 2009 Danny Thomas Leadership Scholarship during the recent 2009 Collegiate Leadership Seminar in Memphis, Tenn.

Miller, an elementary and special education major from Reelsville, was one of three recipients in the nation chosen for this notable award in recognition of his contribution to the mission of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, founded in 1962 by the late entertainer Danny Thomas and based in Memphis.

"I am truly humbled and honored to receive the Danny Thomas Leadership Scholarship," Miller said. "My work with the Up 'til Dawn program at Indiana State educated me about St. Jude's, allowed me to become a stronger leader, and enabled me to be a better teacher among fellow college students and community members."

St. Jude's mission of conducting research and finding cures for childhood cancer strikes a chord with Miller, who has had to fight his own battles.

He underwent a stem cell transplant April 7 to treat a form of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, which was first diagnosed in February 2008. He went in to remission the following July 10, but relapsed last October.

Cancer has taught the Indiana State student about leadership and being a strong person.

"You must be a self advocate. I had to learn the medications, learn the treatment options, and learn the possible outcomes," Miller said. "I had to make life changing decisions and accept ‘life is not fair' and ‘you can't plan ahead'. I am not happy to have cancer, but I am proud of the person I have become from it."

An unexpected relapse wasn't enough to stop Miller and fellow cancer survivor Gabe Mullane from actively engaging other Indiana State students in the fight against cancer.

Miller served as team chairperson for Indiana State's inaugural Up ‘til Dawn campaign, a fundraiser for St. Jude's.

"Cancer changes your life forever," Miller said. "You have a new ‘normal' in life after all the treatments or transplants while battling cancer. I had to help others who battle cancer (like me) and Up ‘til Dawn allowed me to help the children battling cancer at St. Jude."

Students organized a St, Jude Up ‘til Dawn letter writing night, which was held in conjunction with President Daniel Bradley's installation week activities in November. More than 200 students and faculty gathered in Hulman Memorial Student Union, each sending a minimum of 50 letters to friends and family seeking donations to fight childhood cancer.

"Despite his diagnosis, J.D. worked tirelessly to recruit teams of students to participate in Indiana State's Up ‘til Dawn awareness and fundraising program," said Susie Tatum, event marketing representative for ALSAC/St. Jude.

Tatum, who worked with Miller and other Indiana State students, said there was a reason the education major was able to mobilize students to participate in the fundraiser.

"He was successful in recruiting participants because of his sincerity, integrity, passion and persistence -all part of being a strong leader," she said.

Freda Luers, one of the advisors to the Indiana State Up ‘til Dawn group, said Miller kept the group going.

"Throughout the planning of Up ‘til Dawn, one thing was always constant - J.D. He always came to the meetings prepared and willing to work, gave words of encouragement to other committee members that were struggling and inspired others to do the best job possible," she said.

The Sycamore effort raised $20,537 in its first year of participating in Up ‘til Dawn, a national fundraising program to give students the opportunity to help the children and families of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital while also having fun. More than 250 colleges and universities now participate in Up ‘til Dawn, which began in 1998.

Working with Miller left a lasting impression on Tatum.
"He is young man - who is thinking and planning for the future - while challenged with a cancer diagnosis today," she said. "He inspires all of us with his positive attitude and makes us grateful for what we have."

Miller and Mullane teamed up again to rally students to participate in the Vigo County Colleges Relay for Life in April. In addition to organizing teams and raising money, the two students shared their own personal stories with all those gathered.

In addition to raising money for cancer research, Miller is active in the ISU chapter of the Indiana Student Education Association, Lutheran Campus Ministries and worked as a Resident Assistant in Rhoads Hall. He is also state president of the Indiana Student Education Association.

Miller has kept busy while recovering from his transplant. In addition to blogging about his recovery, he has been selling wristbands to raise money for his treatment and has taken up knitting sock caps. He's also working on setting up a tutoring service for students in grades K-8.

Over the summer, Miller was elected a student program representative on the NEA board of directors, where he will serve a one year term.

"I look forward to being new insights, ideas, and leadership to the board," Miller said. "I have a strong passion for public education and helping children. This is part of my life."

In the meantime, Miller will continue to be an active advocate for cancer reach through his activities with St. Jude, Relay for Life and The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

"I want to raise the public's awareness of cancer and educate people about cancer," Miller said.

He will continue his education this fall via on-line courses and will gain valuable teaching experience by filling in for a friend on medical leave, taking care of her fourth grade classroom.

"I am looking forward to the experience and opportunity. I will teach over and beyond what is needed, but that is my strong passion for public education, he said. "It is the best practice and real hands-on experience for some of my college courses."

Miller is looking forward to physically being back on the Indiana State campus.

"I look forward to getting back to campus in the spring with a full load of education courses," he said. "My life goal is to become an elementary school teacher -- I am about three semesters away from achieving that".

Continuing his education and staying active are two goals he has for the coming school year, but he has one big goal he'd like to achieve.

"My number one goal is to be cancer free and in remission," he said. "My battle has been longer than I ever thought possible. I pray each day to rid my body of this cancer and to finding a cure."

Indiana State's support has kept him going through the tough times.

"The outpouring of support by my ISU family has been wonderful. The greeting cards, website posts, or personal visits have truly been a large part of my recovery and healing," he said. "I am proud to be a Sycamore."

Caption: Preparing for a stem cell transplant, JD Miller shares his battle with cancer with fellow college students during the Vigo County Colleges Relay for Life. (Tony Campbell/ISU)
Caption: Victory lap- Gabe Mullane (left) and J.D. Miller (right) take a lap during the Vigo County Colleges Relay for Life to celebrate the battles they've won against cancer. (Tony Campbell/ISU)
Caption: J.D. (far left) helps hold cards telling fellow students how much they raised at the inaugural Up'til Dawn campaign while fellow cancer survivor Gabe Mullane (front) thanks everyone who participated. (Tony Campbell/ISU)


Media contact and writer: Paula Meyer, ISU Communications & Marketing, (812) 237-3783 or

Story Highlights

J.D. Miller, an elementary and special education major from Reelsville, was one of three recipients in the nation chosen for this notable award in recognition of his contribution to the mission of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, founded in 1962 by the late entertainer Danny Thomas and based in Memphis.

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