Grad Student Scores Big With $100,000 Tuition Prize
There’s pressure like getting an A on a final, and then there’s pressure like competing for $100,000 by throwing footballs on national television. Michael Dodds is now familiar with both types.
Last month, the biomedical engineering graduate student won the grand prize in the Dr Pepper Tuition Giveaway contest during halftime of the ACC Championship football game. He beat the other student competitor by throwing 14 footballs into a giant Dr Pepper soda can in 30 seconds, ensuring that he will walk away from graduate school with little to no debt.
“Rather than force myself into a career to offset accumulating debt, I'll be able to find or potentially create an ideal job,” Dodds said. “Overall, it sets me up for a much better chance at long-term success.”
Dodds was inspired to enter the tuition giveaway after a close friend from high school won the contest at a collegiate football championship game last year. In early October, he created a short video describing how financial help would aid his biomedical engineering education and future career goals. A month later, he received a call from Dr Pepper that changed everything.
“While I was riding the train into Philly, I kept getting calls from a number in Texas,” he said. “I usually don't pick up if I don't recognize the number. Sure enough, I picked up after the third call and it was the Dr Pepper team telling me that I was guaranteed up to $2,500 in tuition and was selected as one of 16 total finalists.”
The thrill was a bit hard to contain.
“If I wasn't in the designated ‘quiet car’ of the train, I probably would've been very animated with my excitement,” Dodds said.
Dodds’ video had received enough votes to put him in the final contest. Dr Pepper flew him and his father to the game and took care of accommodations, and his mother and brother eventually joined them for the Dec. 6 game.
“I'd like to say that I was calm and collected leading up to the halftime competition, but, in reality, I was really nervous,” Dodds said. “I kept telling myself that the runner-up prize of $20,000 is more than a blessing. But at the same time, my competitive side kept butting in and saying, ‘But it could be $100,000 if you perform as well as you know you can.’”
With that $100,000 on the line, Dodds prepared to do his very best on the field.
“I'm an engineering student, so I stress little calculated details: My arm angle, hand orientation, position of my elbow, how dry or wet my fingers were,” he said. “Before we left, my brother and I threw for about half an hour in the fitness room of the hotel just to go over my technique again and remind myself of how the footballs were textured.”
Dodds played football from third grade until his junior year of high school, and he also had some experience playing quarterback. So no problem, right?
“Funnily enough, all that preparation sort of went out the window once we got out onto the field,” he said. “My head started swimming when I saw exactly how many people were in the stadium. We were only five yards from the target, but that distance is deceptively far when a whole bunch of people are watching.”
By repeating his mantra — "Just relax and throw” — Dodds was able to take the lead in a close competition.
“I don't even really remember the moments immediately after the competition ended,” Dodds said. “I know it's cliché, but between how hazy my mind was and how blessed I felt, it honestly, physically, felt like a dream.”
Once he realized this was his life now, he met with his family to celebrate. His older sister and other family members who couldn’t make it called.
“My phone actually died shortly after that, so I didn't hear from my friends until after I got back to the hotel,” Dodds said. “Once my phone was charged, I had about 100 unread messages from new and old friends. The messages ranged from very sincere congratulations to friendly jokes about me getting emotional on TV.”
Thanks to the prize, Dodds has the financial means to carry out the goals he listed in his video submission. After obtaining his degree, he hopes to work on designing and building implants and prosthetic devices for people, possibly even for his own company. But before that happens, he hopes other students sign up for the Dr Pepper Tuition Giveaway next year so they, too, can have a shot at financing their future.
“I consider myself to be a pretty good student, but every day I sit among students who are just as, if not more, deserving of a chance to share their stories and goals and potentially win a tuition prize,” he said. “I have immense faith that if some of my fellow Dragons share their goals and ambitions, Dr Pepper will be just as impressed with them as I am."