Remembering Brenna

Although 10 years apart, Melany and Brenna Berger were the best of friends. Like her older sister, Melany attended the UA and majored in communication. She even followed her sister into the music industry, and they lived together in Beverly Hills for seven years.

Then tragedy struck. Brenna died at the age of 41 in 2010. Determined to keep Brenna’s memory alive, Melany and her parents, Esther and Bob, have started a generous scholarship in the Department of Communication for students beset by hardship.  

Brenna’s Story

Brenna and Melany grew up with their parents in Belmont, Calif., about an hour outside San Francisco. Brenna excelled in soccer and cheerleading, and Melany played softball.

When Brenna was at the UA, she was in the sorority Sigma Kappa and assisted students in the SALT (Strategic Alternative Learning Techniques) Center. She was also a little sister in the Zeta Beta Tau fraternity. She graduated with a B.A. in communication.  

Brenna’s love of rock-and-roll music inspired her to work in the music industry in Los Angeles. She soon realized that her true passion was mentoring and decided to work with at-risk students at a Los Angeles middle school.

To Melany, the switch seemed natural. In fact, Brenna had earned her master’s degree in Pupil Personnel Services from the University of San Francisco before embarking on a career in music.

“She often took on mentoring and counseling roles,” said Melany. “The music business is not the most forgiving business in the entire world, and she was not cutthroat. It wasn’t her at all.

“Brenna liked everyone,” added Melany. “She didn’t judge anyone. She was very fun-loving and easy going. Everyone was equal in her eyes.”

Unfortunately, Brenna was fighting a long battle with illness, which began when she contracted viral meningitis as a UA student. She continued to be sick for years and was eventually diagnosed with Arnold-Chiari syndrome, which Melany describes as “when there is not enough spinal fluid pressure to hold your brain in place.” What was particularly painful, Melany recalls, was that at the time of her death, Brenna had seemed healthier than she’d been in a long time.

Melany’s Story

Beyond the suffering of losing a sister who was also her best friend, Melany has had her own share of hardship. In 2000, when Melany was a UA student, a car ran a red light and smashed into her car. She had extensive damage to the right side of her face, her cheekbone was broken, and she needed major reconstructive surgery.

“I was very lucky to be alive. I definitely have guardian angels,” said Melany.

Through the pain and the surgeries, Melany was determined to keep her grades up. Michael Dues, who was then head of the communication department, provided the type of support and patience that Melany has not forgotten, solidifying Melany’s already strong allegiance to the UA and the department.

Following graduation, Melany entered the music business, working at William Morris and with bands such as Van Halen, the Eagles, and Velvet Revolver.

Around three years ago, Melany left the business. “It’s not a normal job,” said Melany. “People can be nasty. And it’s not necessarily the rock stars who are mean, but the people who work with them.”

She also recalled the lesson Brenna had shared with her—that you don’t always want to make your favorite pastime your career because you can lose your love for it.

Melany started her blog, Melanysguydlines.com, as a therapy of sorts—she’d recently lost Brenna, her grandmother, and an aunt, and she had gone through two bad breakups within a few years. “So I just started writing. It was really cathartic, and it still is. That’s why I do it. Because it makes me laugh, and it makes me make fun of life. I always say that if I didn’t do it, I’d be in a straitjacket.”

Melany has thrown herself into building the blog. She continues to increase her online traffic and has more than 60,000 followers combined on all her social media channels. Her site recently won the 2014 Badass Blog Award in the “Sex, Dating and Relationships” category.

“I find the work creative, challenging, fascinating, endless, and totally rewarding,” said Melany.

The family business is real estate, which Melany plans to become involved in at some point. “I’m very blessed that it’s afforded me a very nice life. I find it amazing that my grandparents came here with no money—my grandparents were Holocaust survivors—and started the business.”

Melany remains a “Wildcat for Life.” Not only does she stay involved with her sister’s scholarship, she has also joined the SBS advisory board and recently taught a seminar on blogging for the eSociety major.

“I love the UA,” said Melany. “I’m still so close with so many of my friends. You can’t come to a better place. I love the school spirit—you feel like a part of something really cool.”

In Brenna’s Name

Melany’s parents, Esther and Bob, allowed their daughter to pick how she would like to memorialize her sister.

“It was a no-brainer,” said Melany. “Her years at the UA were the best time of her life.”

Because Brenna had a passion for helping young people who were at risk, the Brenna Ilana Berger Memorial Scholarship, which debuted in the 2013-2014 school year, goes to two communication majors each year who have faced significant hurdles in pursuing their education—returning students, those who are supporting families, and those who are coping with trauma and loss. The scholarship is an extremely generous one—$20,000 a year per student, which covers in-state tuition, room and board, and books.

“We identify a male and female student who are dealing with issues in life that are usually no fault of their own,” said Chris Segrin, head of the Department of Communication. “They are just in difficult circumstances where it’s going to be really hard to finish college without help.”

Segrin is very grateful for the generosity of the Berger family and notes that while many students have a positive experience in the major, “this family remembered and wanted to give back and that’s what really separates them from so many others. They’re really awesome people.”

“I think Brenna would be very proud to know that her name is on something that helps students who may not have been able to go to college without the help,” said Melany. “It’s more than a check. My sister wouldn’t want it to be like that. We want to be involved. We want it to make a difference.

“It’s important to us that people don’t forget about Brenna,” said Melany. “There’s never a day that goes by that we don’t think about my sister. With this scholarship we are trying to celebrate her life and who she was as a person and as an educator,” said Melany. “She helped a lot of people. I’m happy that she can continue to help more students now in her passing.”

 

The Brenna Ilana Berger Memorial Scholars

Now in its second year, the Brenna Ilana Berger Memorial Scholarship has been awarded to four outstanding communication majors with disparate life experiences but a common perseverance, resilience, and commitment to education.

Mindy Royer’s husband recently relocated out of state for work, and juggling full-time enrollment, two part-time jobs and four children has proved challenging for Mindy, but not impossible, as is evidenced by her graduation in December. The scholarship allowed her to balance school and family. With her tuition and fees covered, she was able to pay bills and give her kids a good Christmas. These are the kinds of unique personal obstacles that make awards like the Berger Scholarship a force for good beyond the classroom.

“I would like to work as a coordinator in an educational or nonprofit setting,” said Mindy. “My mission is to provide positive and sustainable change for the community. Being awarded the Berger Scholarship was an honor for me and my family.”

Katherine Papasotiriou’s parents divorced soon after her freshman year; after her father left, they faced enormous financial difficulties as her mother re-entered the workforce for the first time in decades. The scholarship has allowed her to stay at the UA—“the college she loves”—and enabled her family to allocate their resources toward putting her other siblings through school. Once she graduates, Papasotiriou aims to gain three years’ professional experience before going to graduate school.

“I am interested in public relations, advertising, sales, and business,” Katherine said. “I believe that to be successful in any of those fields, you need to be able to communicate effectively. My major will equip me with the tools necessary to be successful in the future. I want to thank the Bergers for this amazing and generous scholarship. I am so honored.”

Fleet Paul Phillip’s basketball dreams were dashed by a career-ending back injury, which in turn meant the loss of his college scholarship. The cost of education compounded by the need to support his mother incited Paul to take on four jobs. The scholarship has helped make his future goals, including law school, more accessible and less uncertain.

“I owe that diploma at the end of the road to the Berger family,” said Paul. “I would never have made it this far without their support.”

Frank Meza returned to school after 20 years, selling his car and moving into a smaller apartment to help pay for his education. He will soon be the first person in his family to graduate from college and hopes to attend law school.

“Words cannot express how grateful I am that such wonderful people trust me—someone they have never met—to use the scholarship to better my future,” said Frank. “The scholarship will help me finish my bachelor’s degree in May and that is truly amazing.”

Esther Berger, Fleet Paul Phillips, Melany Berger, Mindy Royer, and Bob Berger.
Phillips and Royer were the inaugural Brenna Ilana Berger Scholars.

Brenna, Melany, Esther, and Bob Berger

Melany and Brenna

Brenna and Melany

Published Date: 

01/23/2015 - 10:45am