Brooke Smith carries a small white board in her backpack.
She also will spend hours in a classroom on the fourth floor of the Wanek School of Natural Sciences, filling its big white boards with so many numbers, formulas and words that it looks like a piece of modern art.
It’s not. Smith sees herself as a visual learner, and she uses white boards to help her think.
Smith is one of two Extraordinary Leaders selected for the month of September. She’s a senior from small-town Colorado and a Presidential Scholar who is double majoring in exercise science and biology with a goal of becoming a pediatric orthopedic surgeon.
High Point University is helping her make that happen.
Smith came to HPU because of its many research opportunities for undergraduates. When she arrived, she found other opportunities, too. She built houses, traveled halfway around the world and stood onstage in front of an audience and shed her shyness.
Those experiences, she says, made her.
Saying Yes to Challenges
On her first day at HPU, Smith felt alone.
Her parents had left, she knew no one and she had to adapt to her new life away from her home in the mountain town of Evergreen, Colorado, population 9,038.
At lunch, she spotted a table in The Café, full of strangers. She tamped down her nerves and walked up.
“Hi, I’m a freshman here, and I don’t know anyone,” she said. “Do you mind if I sit here?”
They didn’t –– and that made all the difference.
Smith sat down with members of Charcoal Pony, HPU’s comedy improv group. They talked her into trying out. She went back to her dorm room and watched every video she could find on improv comedy. After two auditions, she made the cut.
That surprised her –– and her parents.
“You realize you’ll have to stand in front of people,” her mom told her.
“Yeah,” Smith responded.
“Well, go for it,” her mom said.
The Impact of Improv
A few months later at Family Weekend, Smith performed for the first time with Charcoal Pony at HPU’s Pauline Theater.
She stood backstage, feeling her nerves bubble up. The other members reassured her.
“Anything you do onstage is your character, it’s not you,” they told her. “Have fun.”
When she walked onstage, she saw so many people. But right away, she felt energized. The next day, a parent recognized her on campus.
“You did great last night!” he told her.
Smith has remained with Charcoal Pony ever since.
“It’s given me a lot of confidence and taught me not to be afraid to get out of my comfort zone,” she says. “In high school, I didn’t meet that many people, and I didn’t try to express myself. But through Charcoal Pony, I became comfortable with who I am.”
‘You’re Making a Difference’
After Charcoal Pony, Smith discovered HPU’s Habitat Club. Club members worked with the local chapter of Habitat for Humanity in building homes in High Point for families in need.
Last fall, she became the club’s president. During her three years, Smith has worked on eight houses and attended six home dedications. She remembers one well.
The mother who would move into the home walked down the line of volunteers. She shook every hand. She couldn’t speak. She seemed in awe, Smith says, because the mother realized she and her two young children had a home.
In her essay for the Extraordinary Leader nomination, Smith wrote: “Every time I drive on to HPU’s campus, I pass by that neighborhood, and I am so grateful that I got to be a part of doing something so much bigger than myself.”
For Smith, that was just the beginning.
She has accumulated more than 300 service hours with HPU’s service fraternity, Alpha Phi Omega. Last year, Smith became the organization’s service vice president and worked directly with local organizations needing volunteer help.
She remembers the work. But she also remembers the emails from local organizations. They wanted to say thanks.
“The little things like those emails remind you of what you’re doing,” she says. “You’re making a difference.”
Smith has worked hard to make a difference in her own life. In third grade, she couldn’t read.
She has dyslexia, a learning disorder that made it hard for her to distinguish letters and words. Her parents helped. Her mom, a nurse practitioner, started a neuro feedback clinic and received the necessary training to become a therapist to help children like her daughter.
Smith helped herself, too. She tried out dozens of different strategies. By fifth grade, she realized she learned best by seeing rather than reading.
She erected a white board in her bedroom and used hundreds of flash cards. Every Christmas, she knew what she’d find in her stocking –– flash cards and dry eraser markers.
She worked hard. She had to prove something to herself and everyone else.
“I would say to people, ‘Oh, I want to be a doctor,’ and people didn’t take that seriously,” she says today. “That was hard to deal with. But that motivated me to learn how to achieve academically.”
She realized she could achieve academically at HPU.
As a sophomore, she tutored students in some of HPU’s toughest courses such as organic chemistry. She saw them struggle and cry. She told them her story, she worked with them regularly, and she saw them understand.
“It was pretty eye-opening to see how much I had grown as an individual,” Smith says. “It was through helping other people. I wanted them to make that connection like I did.”
The Ripple Effects of Research
Smith, a longtime athlete, came to play soccer at HPU. She also came to research.
After her freshman year, she stayed on campus and worked with the Summer Research Fellowship program. Known as SuRF, the program paired Smith with Drs. Kevin Ford, a physical therapy professor, and Anh-Dung “Yum” Nguyen, an athletic training professor. Smith helped them research ways to prevent injuries in young soccer players.
During that summer, Smith worked in the very place that sold her on HPU –– the Human Biomechanics and Physiology Lab.
Since then, Smith’s love for research has grown because of HPU.
As a sophomore, she traveled to Nepal with 11 other students and two professors as part of HPU’s Maymester program. They spent a month in Kathmandu, the country’s capital, researching how altitude affected Westerners compared to the mountain-dwelling people known as Sherpas.
Smith learned more about research. She also discovered revelations she didn’t expect to find.
She learned about the Sherpas’ culture, language, religion, food, songs and even their favorite card games. She became more empathetic, and she befriended a Sherpa man named Gori.
“He told me his family was his greatest accomplishment, and that hit home with me,” she says. “No matter what you accomplish as an individual, it’s the relationships you have that create a lasting effect.”
She arrived back in the United States from Nepal on a Friday. That following Monday, she began an internship at the Colorado Children’s Hospital. She worked 40 hours a week in the hospital’s Musculoskeletal Research Center, participating in more research and getting a front-row seat to surgery.
Her journey toward becoming a doctor began.
The Intellectual Fire of HPU
By the time she graduates in May, Smith will have created HPU’s first pre-medicine club on campus and gotten ready for her summer internship at the Gates Center for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Colorado’s Anschutz Medical Campus.
Then, she’s off to medical school.
She has applied to 17 medical schools nationwide. She has yet to find out where she’ll end up. But she knows the U.S. Air Force will help pay for it. Her parents are both Air Force veterans. Her mom was a nurse, and her dad was a fighter pilot.
Smith’s tenacity doesn’t surprise HPU’s Dr. Aaron Titus.
Smith approached Titus about finding a way to squeeze his calculus-based physics lab into her busy schedule. Titus had an idea. He came in right after daybreak one day a week so Smith and her friend, Forum Patel, could take the two-hour lab.
Smith took the lab to challenge herself. Ask Titus about Smith, and he mentions her sharp mind and her intellectual curiosity. Then, he tells the story of a white board and a Christmas tree.
On a Friday afternoon, Titus found Smith in a classroom filling up a white board with equations as she tried to figure out the torque involved with a weightlifting exercise. It wasn’t a homework assignment. Smith simply wanted to know.
Then, last December after classes ended, Titus sat in his third-floor office at the Wanek School when he heard wafting from the lobby the sound of a saxophone playing Christmas music. Titus walked down and found Smith.
She was playing her sax in front of the lobby’s big Christmas tree. Smith taught herself how to play.
“She was finished with exams, and she was still engaged,” Titus says laughing as he remembered the occasion. “She has this willingness to embrace hard things.”
She does. It’s because of what she heard Titus once say.
“Dr. Titus describes teaching as not filling a bucket, but lighting a fire, and that’s so cool,” Smith says. “You’re creating that spark so other people can feel that fire. It goes back to how I see success. It’s to help other people succeed.”