Riley Burns sat across from Lori Jo Couch, assistant professor of English and advisor of the Writing Center, head down so she would avoid eye contact. Burns was there to be interviewed to join the Writing Fellows.
“I can see it in my mind like it was yesterday,” Couch said. “I thought to myself, ‘how is this shy of a girl going to tutor other students?’”
Burns said no one realized how burned out she really was or how much that one email nominating her as a writing fellow meant to her. She said her anxiety and depression came to a head, and she felt suicidal.
“I thought, ‘wow if this is what life is like now then I would just rather not,’” Burns said. “Prior to that feeling of hopelessness, I had tried to get diagnosed with ADHD, but no one would listen to me.”
It was the lowest point in her life. She said she had felt for a long time that nothing was going right for her. She struggled with self-esteem issues as she suffered from an eating disorder, and she tried to fit back into a routine after the isolation from the pandemic.
Burns hadn’t always felt that life was hopeless. She has fond memories of being on the MCCC campus as a young girl. Her father, Jack Burns, is director of campus planning and facilities, and has worked here since Burns was in the third grade.
Burns said she and her sisters, Maysie and Kinsley, were always on campus being involved in different activities and participating in the parades with their father.
Burns’ sisters Maysie and Kinsley took dance lessons here on campus, where Maysie still dances with the MCCC dance ensemble.
Burns said her father was excited to take martial art classes at MCCC.
“We all took Taekwondo at the same time, my dad wanted us to take it with him,” she said. “However, only he went on to earn his black belt, Maysie and I didn’t enjoy it as much and we dropped out after getting our blue belts.”
Burns said her struggles began when her father was diagnosed with cancer during her middle school years.
“His health got really bad,” she said. “The cancer seemed to spread to a new area every time doctors thought they had it gone.”
Burns said her father went into remission and was able to return to his job just as she was starting the Middle College at MCCC.
“I loved being on campus,” she said. “It was everything that school had not been for me for so long, for so, so, long.”
She said she had a great group of friends, and everything seemed to be going great until the coronavirus.
Burns said when the Middle College went online, the school chose to not hold Zoom classes. Instead, everything was preloaded on laptops.
She said teachers knew what the students were doing because they had access to see their work online, but there was no contact between teachers and students.
“I didn’t really have any connections with the outside world,” Burns said.
However, she said she doesn’t remember that time at home being hard. She said she enjoyed her seclusion, and the issues didn’t start until they went back to school in person.
Burns said the school had students going to classes, but students and teachers were just using the classrooms and then going home.
“I hated school, and wanted to get as far away from MCCC as I could,” Burns said. “It was hard because I really didn’t know why I was so angry.”
It was during her junior year at the Middle College in 2021 when she said her mental health issues became increasingly worse.
Then in her senior year, she received an email that she had been nominated by her English professor Michele Toll to be a writing fellow. Burns said she’ll never forget that day, Nov. 7, 2022, because that’s when everything changed.
“I thought, ‘OK if someone is still seeing my potential, I still have potential to do something,’” Burns said.
She went into the interview with Couch with the mindset that if this was going to be a lot of work, she would do the bare minimum to get by.
Today, you can find Burns in the Writing Center every chance she gets. The once quiet girl enthusiastically greets everyone who walks into the center. She also helped implement a presentation for classes, encouraging students to utilize the Writing Center for help.
Burns, along with her best friend Brooklyn Kayson, another writing fellow, put together a slideshow presentation that is used by the Writing Fellows to present to classes around MCCC.
Kayson said they became friends in their advanced composition class. Even though Burns is shy by nature, Kayson said she is an amazing person to get to know.
“We were friends for months before we realized she was the one that backed into me in the parking lot one day,” said Kayson, laughing at the memory of that day.
Burns said she attributed her change in behavior to being diagnosed with combination type ADHD and receiving treatment for it. She wears a smile as she speaks excitedly about her role in the Writing Center.
“I found my niche, I don’t know exactly when I realized it but once I did it felt great,” she said. “I’m so much happier now and I realize I have a whole life to look forward to.”
Burns will graduate from MCCC at the end of winter semester 2024 and plans to transfer to either Appalachian State University or Oakland University. She also plans on minoring in communications and/or psychology alongside her chosen major, a master’s degree in social work.
“It has been a privilege to see her blossom,” Couch said. “I don’t know what it was that made the change in her, but it was amazing to watch her transform.”
That angsty teenager who sat across from her is no longer recognizable today.
“She is an amazing person with so much to offer the world,” Couch said.