It took Brandon Crayne seven years—and a lot of heartache, hard work, and growing pains—to earn his spot at the head of the classroom.

On Sunday, he’ll celebrate his milestone accomplishment: the achievement of his Bachelor of Arts in Secondary Education with a specialization in physical education. Concordia will honor Brandon and its 234 other 2020 graduates during Virtual Commencement, which begins at 2 p.m. ET on Dec. 13.

RELATED: Tim Tebow is the featured speaker of Concordia’s Virtual Commencement ceremony, which honors both the May and December graduates of 2020. The celebration begins with a pre-show at 1:45 p.m. ET. Click here to watch live once the ceremony begins.

To school and back again

Brandon started his journey to his bachelor’s degree in 2012. Following a year at community college, he transferred to Concordia when he was recruited to compete for the university’s track and brand-new football programs. Two years in, however, with a nagging foot and ankle injury at his heels, Brandon’s competitive spirit began to wane and his zeal for earning his teaching degree along with it.

Instead of college, Brandon found employment as a hearing specialist for an independently owned mobile medical support clinic. For the next three years, he shifted his energy and career ambitions to his work there.

Tragedy struck in July 2017 when Brandon’s dad died. Depression began to set in. A little over a year later his emotional struggle was exacerbated by his grandmother’s passing, and two days after that his boss died by suicide. Within the span of 14 months, Brandon had lost three significant support figures in his life—not to mention his job and career trajectory.

“At the time, I think I was in denial about my depression, but looking back it was a really rough time in my life,” Brandon said.

A few months later, with the support of his mother, sister, and girlfriend, Brandon made the decision to revive his teaching pursuit. Even though he was no longer on scholarship for athletics and nearly all of his original Concordia friends had graduated, Brandon made the choice to return to CUAA.

“I felt a pull to go back to school,” Brandon said. “All of that stuff that happened is what brought me back to Concordia. I feel like God allowed me to go through all of that to bring me to right where I needed to be. It really humbled me, and I think that’s what I needed.”

The Concordia difference

Brandon said he chose Concordia for a second time because there was a familiarity there and a sense of security that came with the campus. Still, he felt the nerves of returning late in the game and no longer having many of the familiar faces he had once come to rely upon. The campus looked different, too. Just as Brandon had grown in the 3 ½ years that had passed, so too had Concordia: the North Building and School of Nursing were added, a new football stadium and track and turf field took shape, and, that fall, Concordia saw a record-breaking incoming student enrollment, which again pushed it to hit a record-breaking total enrollment mark.

Whatever concerns Brandon had were soon put to rest, however. Upon his return, Brandon said Vice President of Administration Rev. Dr. Ryan Peterson immediately recognized him and greeted him as though no time had passed. His advisor, Meghan Hernandez, soon became an ally as well by guiding him through the morass of scheduling requisite courses.

And then there was his professor, Dr. Sara Clemm von Hohenberg, who remained an ever-present support to Brandon in myriad ways.

“She was always the person I went to whenever I was having problems,” said Brandon. “She kind of acted like my parent on campus in the sense that she was that person who advocated for me and helped make sure I wasn’t getting swallowed up by everything.”

Class in session

Before he even finished his student teaching at Shumate Middle School in Gibraltar, Michigan, Brandon had a long-term subbing position lined up with the school. He officially finished his degree requirements on Friday, Dec. 4. The following Monday he was back in the classroom, this time as a paid professional.

"I don't want to just be a teacher. I want to be someone that students can look up to." —Brandon Crayne ('20)

Brandon wouldn’t want to repeat the last few years of his life, but he also wouldn’t have them any other way. He’s confident that his trials have prepared him to be a better teacher.

They certainly gave him the empathy needed to mentor a student in crisis earlier this semester. After noticing that the student had missed a number of school days, Brandon pulled him aside to check in.

“He just started bawling and he told me that his dad had passed away earlier this year,” Brandon said. “I think for a kid that age to hear that someone like me has gone through the same thing and come out the other side, it helps him out a bit.

Brandon continued: “All of my tough experiences really humbled me and allowed me to be able to speak from experience to help others. I’m grateful for that. Because I don’t want to just be a teacher. I want to be someone that students can look up to.”

This story is part of Concordia’s annual Graduate Tributes series. Each year, in the days leading up to commencement, the Strategic Communications team features one or some of CUAA’s exemplary graduates through story. Nominations are solicited from deans, professors, and staff who play key roles in student services.

Meet more students from the Class of 2020

— This story is written by Kali Thiel, director of university communications for Concordia University Ann Arbor and Wisconsin. She may be reached at or 262-243-2149.

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