Family honors memory of Elon alumnus with Global Education Scholarship

The Michael Poteat '04 Global Education Scholarship will give students suffering from chronic illness the opportunity to study abroad and have a life-changing experience.

When Michael Poteat ’04 passed away in 2014 at age 31 after nearly a lifetime of chronic illness, his family looked for a way to honor his memory. They wanted to perpetuate his legacy in a way that would reflect the person Michael was, and impact the lives of others in similar circumstances.

A $100,000 gift endowing the Michael Poteat ’04 Global Education Scholarship at Elon University was the right fit. After all, a Winter Term study abroad course in Australia while he was a student at Elon was a life-changing experience for Michael, says his sister, Nicole Poteat. Nicole, with her wife Emilie Poteat and Michael’s parents George and Kathy Poteat, made the endowment gift to Elon in May.

The scholarship is unique. It reflects the significance of the Elon experience abroad, which was the highlight of his time as a student, and will be a powerful memorial to Michael’s physical struggles. Michael was stricken with brain cancer at age 5 and Crohn’s disease at age 15. Recipients of the Michael Poteat ’04 Global Education Scholarship will be students with financial need who are suffering from a debilitating chronic disease. The scholarship will include funding to enable recipients to study abroad, a critical component of Elon’s commitment to experiential learning.

Endowing the scholarship helped the Poteat family deal with their feelings of loss.

“We funneled our grief into thinking about how we could honor Michael, be proactive, positive, and impact other people’s lives and put that into a scholarship,” says Nicole, who grew up in Southern Pines, North Carolina and now lives in New York. “We wanted it to be a purposeful reflection on what affected Michael’s life the most as someone who lived with a chronic illness.

“We all bore witness to what it was like to live day to day being chronically ill,” Nicole says. “We saw what it was like for Michael to have an extracurricular experience while at Elon that opened the door to a new horizon for him and ended up being really life-defining. We wanted to help other people with chronic illness find that for themselves.”

GEORGE AND KATHY Poteat moved to Southern Pines from New York when Michael and Nicole were children. They grew up in the Sandhills region of North Carolina most famous for its historic golf courses and resorts.

Michael was 10 years old when the family moved to North Carolina, five years removed from his first bout with cancer, chemotherapy and other treatments. Nicole was 6. She says his health issues were complicated, with one problem compounding another. Treatment for brain cancer, for example, damaged his hearing, his mother Kathy says. At age 15, he was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory problem in the digestive tract. A complication with medication to treat Crohn’s left his kidneys badly damaged.

Still, Michael continued to try to make the best of it.

“This was a constant presence in his life,” Nicole says. “Yet he didn’t really acknowledge it. He didn’t allow it to define his life in any way. If people asked him how he’s doing, he always said, ‘I’m fine or I’ll be fine’ like things were normal.”

Michael loved the outdoors and hiking and intellectually he gravitated toward computers and technology, “all the things my family didn’t understand,” Nicole says with a laugh. He was the family IT director, setting up computers and other tech systems for his parents and friends.

Michael attended boarding school for middle and high school. Nicole graduated from The O’Neal School in Southern Pines and left the state to attend Harvard University. Michael returned from boarding school seeking a university close to home. He was drawn to Elon almost immediately.

“He wanted to stay close to our family for college,” Nicole says. “He wanted to be in North Carolina and this was only a couple of hours away from home in Southern Pines. Elon felt like the right fit.”

Michael majored in information technology at Elon. He joined Alpha Phi Omega, the national service fraternity. One of his projects was working on computers for Habitat for Humanity while on the Elon campus. “He really enjoyed being a part of the service fraternity,” Kathy Poteat says. “He was passionate about serving others in any way he could.”

“Elon was a great place for him,” Nicole says. “He really enjoyed the Alpha Phi Omega fraternity because it was a service fraternity. He wasn’t interested in Greek life, fraternity life, but he was very kind, social and liked to get to know people in a genuine way. That was his personality.”

Ironically, he was most impacted by his time away from the campus – during the three-week study abroad program with his classmates to Australia.

“That trip was life-changing for him. He fell in love with the country, the weather, the people – everything about it,” Nicole says. “He got a taste of it at Elon during that winter session and he made it his goal to return.”

And he did.

AFTER GRADUATING from Elon in 2004 with a degree in information technology, Michael worked in Washington in the U.S. Senate as an IT staff member for Sen. Gordon Smith of Oregon. He returned home to North Carolina a couple of years later and engaged in freelance IT jobs. Ultimately, the temptation to return to Australia was too great to ignore. He decided to go for his master’s degree at the University of Wollongong in New South Wales – an area about 50 miles from Sydney.

Nicole says this period in Australia was the happiest time in her brother’s life.

“He really thrived, made tons of friends, and was in his element there. It was really amazing for us to see – it was like seeing a whole new person,” she says. As Michael’s parents watched from afar, it was special to see their son flourish in this new environment.

Michael took up surfing and started hiking in the Australian Outback. He joined his friends in a local poker league. “He found all of these new activities he really enjoyed doing,” Nicole says.

When Michael successfully finished his master’s degree studies at Wollongong, he delayed coming back to North Carolina for six months. He wanted to get as much out of the experience as he could.

“Travel was an opportunity to be away from the chronic illness he fought his whole life,” Nicole says.

But toward the end of his time in Australia, his kidneys began to fail.

SHORTLY AFTER returning home, Michael’s health deteriorated and he became very ill. A kidney transplant offered a brief period of recovery. It didn’t last long. A bout with pneumonia brought on by his weakened immune system proved too much. Michael passed away on June 8, 2014.

In his obituary published in The Pilot of Southern Pines, Michael is remembered for his compassion, kindness and wry sense of humor as well as an adventurous spirit and courage in the face of lifelong health challenges. That adventurous spirit was fueled by Elon’s study abroad program, something that impacted him for the remainder of his short life.

Nicole and Kathy say they hope the Michael Poteat ’04 Global Education Scholarship can have the same kind of impact on a student now walking the path her brother faced.

“We wanted to help someone who has lived through something similar to be able to travel and study abroad. It’s such a great experience,” Kathy says.

Nicole agrees.

“We thought about how difficult it can be for young people living with a chronic illness to be able to participate in an internship or a global study program. We wanted to facilitate the opportunity for them to discover something that would really ignite their passion. Michael’s life was short but it was so positively impacted by the experiences he was able to have in Australia, which all started with Elon’s winter session,” Nicole says. “His experience showed us that the volume of life’s experiences does not have to be lessened by the quantity of life. We hope this scholarship will remove some barriers from the paths of those who have had to live with many, and provide some volume to future Elon students.”