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Dropout-turned-doctor is among group of six alumni to be honored by ECC

As a teenager, Brendan Alleyne picked up an unwanted label – high school dropout.

Eleven years later, he earned a far more impressive title – doctor.

One thing’s certain about Dr. Brendan Alleyne. The 28-year-old Amherst native has taken the less-traveled path, from high school dropout to plastic-surgery resident at the internationally acclaimed Cleveland Clinic. Along the way, he’s earned degrees from Erie Community College, the University at Buffalo and Case Western Reserve University Medical School.

That success has led Erie Community College to name Alleyne one of the school’s six Distinguished Alumni for this year. All six will be honored at the “Celebrate ECC” event inside the college’s City Campus atrium from 6 to 9 p.m. Thursday.

“As accomplished as Brendan is, he’s a perfect example of what we do at ECC,” college President Jack Quinn said. “We literally change lives, almost every day and every semester. He stands for what ECC is all about.”

Alleyne’s life story chronicles a meteoric rise in academic circles.

It’s not that he ever was a bad student. He wanted to be a doctor, and he earned top honors grades at both Amherst middle and high schools, until one awful day in the middle of his sophomore year.

Like many other really bright high school students, Alleyne found a close buddy, who became a friendly academic rival; they prodded each other to do well academically. One middle school teacher even gave them high school-level exams, to push them.

Then in January 2003, in the middle of sophomore year, Alleyne’s friend was killed when he was struck by a vehicle on Millersport Highway, while running with the school’s track team.

The next day, Alleyne remembers walking by his friend’s empty desk in every class. Suddenly, he started wondering what he was accomplishing in school.

“I questioned why had I been so motivated in school when something can be taken from you, in a moment’s notice, without warning,” he said.

As Alleyne recalls, that was his last day in high school. Despite the efforts of Amherst school officials to provide him with at-home tutoring, he dropped out.

With the constant support of his mother, Beverly, and grandmother, Norma Shaffer, Alleyne restarted his academic career by taking a GED prep course at ECC North. That led him to earn an associate degree in 2006, before heading to UB and Case Western Reserve Medical School.

But it wasn’t easy. Along the way, several educators told him that going from dropout to doctor was too much of a long shot.

ECC proved to be the perfect fit.

“Overall, it was exactly what I needed – small class sizes and a different setting,” he said.

Three professors there especially helped him back on his feet: Mary Anne Silsby, Susan Dye and Keith Scully.

“Those three stand out as the strongest supporters of what I was doing,” he said. “They, along with my mother and grandmother, were the prime forces in encouraging me not to give up.”

Sometimes it was just an encouraging word for him. Or pushing him to help tutor other students. Or anything to motivate him on his unconventional academic road to medical school.

Alleyne, who hopes to tackle a pediatric craniofacial fellowship after his six-year residency, noted that ECC didn’t change just his life; it also will impact his thousands of future patients.

“If I had taken the straight and normal path, I don’t think I would have the same empathy I have for patients,” he said. “I feel thankful for the obstacle course I set up for myself.”

One example: Alleyne was treating a young sickle-cell anemia patient, also with a GED, whose family didn’t think his dream to be a doctor was realistic. So Alleyne told him his own story of beating the odds.

“I told him I had dropped out, and he didn’t believe it was true,” he said. “That was surprisingly powerful to him.”

Alleyne vividly remembers the anxiety he felt in interviews for both medical school and his residency. In one case, he was told he hadn’t finished the application, after having left blank both his high school graduation date and SAT scores.

Both interviewers literally dropped his application folders.

“They said they never had interviewed anyone who had taken a path like that,” he recalled. “They thought it said a lot when you can come from that kind of background.”

Quinn made the same point about ECC. Sometimes, he suggested, community colleges get an undeserved reputation about the caliber of students who may have struggled in high school.

“That’s unfortunate, because there are dozens and dozens of students like Brendan who have come back and changed their lives and their families’ lives,” Quinn added.

The other five new Distinguished Alumni honorees are Thomas R. Allen, ’03, clinical director of CCS Oncology; Joyce DeLong, ’75, owner of Insty Prints of Cheektowaga; Deborah L. Pease, ’77, architect and vice president of Cannon Design; Richard S. Pyszczek, ’94, social studies teacher at City Honors School; and Carl Stokes, ’01, youth services leader at L.I.F.E. Program, Heritage Centers.

Six other awards will go to these individuals and institutions: Western New York Dental Group; Penn State College of Engineering; Mark L. Martin, of M&T Bank; Eugene Vukelic, of Try-It Distributing Co.; and ECC professors Nathan Witkowski and John Danna.