Wildland Fire Student Battles More Than Blazes For Degree
By Amanda Cairo
Wildland fire management and ecology senior Mike McManus was easing into his final year at the University of Idaho in August 2010 when his life was turned on its head. He was diagnosed with a brain tumor. After a year off for surgery and recovery, McManus is poised to start his career as a wildland firefighter this summer.
“It’s been an incredible journey,” says McManus, a Temecula, Calif. native. “It’s been a long and rewarding process.”
During his first week of classes last year, McManus was tested, diagnosed and underwent surgery for a brain tumor. When he woke up, he was unable to walk -- and then he contracted bacterial meningitis, which required another surgery and almost a year of recovery at home in California.
“It’s been an incredible journey. It’s been a long and rewarding process.”
Through physical therapy, hard work, perseverance, the help of staff and faculty in the College of Natural Resources and financial aid, McManus was able to begin his final year in August 2011. Not without hesitation though.
Looking at a career dependent on physical activity, McManus was initially concerned during his recovery and physical therapy. His MRIs have come back negative and he has largely resumed normal life.
“I was worried coming back that I might have to give up my dream and start over again,” says McManus. “But I eased back into it with the help and support of those around me. It feels good to be back out there.”
During his fist three years at the University, McManus’ focus was on the experiential learning the program offered. It was this aspect that drew him to Idaho, and he was getting the most out of the real instances of training. McManus says when he first returned, though, he really focused on hitting the books.
“I was so used to basing my success on the physical work, it was a different experience to have to focus my studies on book work,” says McManus. “I have a deeper value for both kinds of learning.”
This spring break, he tested and proved to himself that he could still tackle those real-world experiences during a two-credit class in Nebraska, fighting fires with the Student Association for Fire Ecology. He was impressed with the skills and lessons the University of Idaho had taught him, as were fire ecology majors from other universities.
“I wasn’t aware of just how far ahead the curve we are here,” says McManus. “In skill and theory, we were definitely more advanced, and the other students took notice.”
The experience reaffirmed his decision to become a Vandal. After working as an EMT in California, McManus was a non-traditional student when he came on Idaho Transfer Day and he said he immediately took to the campus, community and the academic program.
“I didn’t know a single soul when I first came up here,” says McManus. “I made a couple of really good friends once I got involved and feel like I’m really part of the community here.”
Taking a year off for surgery and recuperation wasn’t part of the plan, but it was an eye-opening experience. He realized the stark contrast between what a college degree can do in the real world. It made his determination to graduate that much stronger.
“Hanging out with my high school friends and seeing where they are in their lives, it made me really appreciate where I am and what I’ve gone though,” says McManus.
After McManus earns his degree, he will head to Deary to work for the summer for the Idaho Department of Lands.