Russell Hillabrand woke up one night with a headache. Odd, he thought, before falling back asleep.
The next morning, the headache returned. Or maybe it never left. The high school senior endured the pain, hoping the pressure in his noggin would subside.
Over the next few years, the teen visited neurological and headache specialists, and when those experts – and their prescriptions – failed to allay the pain, Hillabrand was sent to pain management specialists.
“When you get to that level,” he said, “basically everyone is telling you, ‘We don’t know what to do.’”
Hillabrand’s chronic headache disorder could be genetic or of the onset variety. He doesn’t know. Likely never will.
His headaches fluctuate in severity, from light pressure to full-blown migraines. He said at its worst, his head throbs, as though a tight band has been wrapped around it or a weight placed atop it. Sometimes, he feels spikes poking the back of his eyes.
Hillabrand, 23, has learned how to compartmentalize the pain, burying it so far beneath his zen that even at their worst, the headaches don’t knock him off kilter.
And with the pain accounted for, the outgoing Fullerton College honors student earned five associate degrees, several academic and community awards and a full scholarship to prestigious Pomona College.
“Meditation helps” with channeling the pain, Hillabrand said. “It allows me to focus and reflect, and I try not to be so self-contained. When you’re in pain, you’re thinking about how much it hurts or ‘I can’t do this or that.’
“I stop making it about me, and I focus on others. It’s like the saying: I’m losing myself to find myself.”
***A tough break
In 2011, Hillabrand graduated from Trona High, a school named for the rural town of 1,900 in which it is headquartered.
From the outskirts of Death Valley, Hillabrand moved to Fullerton, enrolled in fall classes and found a full-time job. For two years he worked from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., then attended classes from 6 to 10.
“I didn’t have much of a life,” he quipped.
By spring 2013, he had earned enough credits to enroll at UC Irvine, where he planned to study political science. Around the same time, his mother remarried.
When discussing financial aid with UCI representatives, Hillabrand said he was told his parents made too much money – his stepfather’s salary counted toward the family’s household income, he found out, and because Hillabrand was younger than 24, he couldn’t qualify for financial aid as an independent.
Crestfallen, Hillabrand returned to Fullerton College, deciding against applying for loans to pay tens of thousands of dollars in tuition. He quit his job and found another that paid him less but offered weekend shifts.
Those first few semesters back at Fullerton, Hillabrand said he “lived off of the campus food bank” to get by. From Buena Park, he bused and biked to class – up to a one-hour commute one way, he said.
His headaches intensified as his routine changed. He failed classes.
Bruce Hanson first had Hillabrand in an intro to philosophy class in summer 2012. The teen was one of several students who stayed behind after hours to discuss that week’s material.
“He was brand new to philosophy,” Hanson said, “but he had by far the most inquisitive mind.”
Present day, Hanson – at Fullerton since 1990 – pointed to conversations he had with Hillabrand about St. Thomas Aquinas, Confucius and Taoism as turning points in their relationship; the two were less teacher and student during those discussions than friends, Hanson said.
In 2014, Hillabrand helped found Fullerton College’s philosophy club, a student hub for friendly discourse. Evelyn Martinez, a fellow student, joined, and the two hit it off. (They now are planning a wedding.)
Hillabrand also became a supplemental instruction tutor for Jodi Balma, his political science professor, and Hanson. He planned activities for other students that reinforced course content.
“The guy’s got a natural gift for teaching,” Hanson said. “He’s the best thinker I’ve had. Not the smartest, certainly not the best looking,” he added with a laugh, “but the first mark of a thinker is his ability to get some distance on the common mindset of a generation.
“Every generation has certain values, a certain mindset or cultural perspective. The best thinkers can transcend that and think against the grain.”
In the past couple of years, Hillabrand has earned associate degrees in philosophy, political science, geography, religious studies and economics.
But not without hardship.
Florescent lights and loud noises trigger Hillabrand’s headaches. Quite the combination for a college student, he joked. But while lecture halls and classrooms are “not physically comforting,” he said, they’re “safe havens, mental and emotional safe havens.
“At the beginning of a class (the headaches) can be painful,” Hillabrand said, “but school is what I like most, so I still enjoy class.”
Earlier this school year, Balma, Hanson and four other Fullerton faculty members nominated Hillabrand for consideration as a 2017 student of distinction, in the personal achievement category.
On Friday, a committee of campus constituents named him one of two distinguished students of the year.
“You can talk to any instructor he’s had here and they all adore him,” Hanson said. “He can have a serious discussion without making a person feel judged or threatened. That’s a gift. That’s a rare gift.”
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