Although they were 10 years apart, Melany and Brenna Berger were the best of friends. Like her older sister, Melany attended the University of Arizona and majored in communication. She even followed her sister into the music industry, and they lived together in Beverly Hills for seven years.
After a long illness, Brenna died five years ago at the age of 41. Determined to keep her memory alive, Melany and her parents, Esther and Bob Berger, have started a generous scholarship in the UA Department of Communication for students beset by hardship. The Brenna Ilana Berger Memorial Scholarship, which debuted in the 2013-14 school year, goes annually to two communication majors who have faced significant hurdles in pursuing their education — returning students, those who are supporting families and those who are coping with trauma and loss.
Brenna and Melany grew up in Belmont, California, about an hour outside San Francisco. Brenna excelled in soccer and cheerleading, and Melany played softball.
When Brenna was at the UA, she was in the Sigma Kappa sorority and assisted students in the Strategic Alternative Learning Techniques Center, known as SALT, She also was a little sister in the Zeta Beta Tau fraternity and graduated with a bachelor's degree in communication.
Brenna's love of rock and roll inspired her to work in the music industry in Los Angeles. However, she soon realized that her true passion was mentoring and decided to work with at-risk students at a Los Angeles middle school.
To Melany, the switch seemed natural. In fact, Brenna had earned a master's degree in pupil personnel services from the University of San Francisco before embarking on a career in music.
"She often took on mentoring and counseling roles," Melany said. "The music business is not the most forgiving business in the entire world, and she was not cutthroat. It wasn’t her at all. Brenna liked everyone. She didn't judge anyone. She was very fun-loving and easygoing. Everyone was equal in her eyes."
Brenna fought a long battle with illness, which began when she contracted viral meningitis as a UA student. Sick for years, she eventually was diagnosed with Arnold-Chiari syndrome, which Melany describes as "when there is not enough spinal fluid pressure to hold your brain in place." Melany said Brenna died when she seemed healthier than she had been in a long time.
Beyond the suffering of losing a sister who was her best friend, Melany has had her own share of hardship. In 2000, when she was a UA student, the driver of a car ran a red light and smashed into her car. She had extensive damage to the right side of her face, her cheekbone was broken and she needed reconstructive surgery.
"I was very lucky to be alive. I definitely have guardian angels," she said.
Through the pain and the surgeries, Melany was determined to keep her grades up. Michael Dues, who was then head of the communication department, provided the type of support and patience that Melany has not forgotten, solidifying her already strong allegiance to the UA and the department.
After graduation, Melany entered the music business, working at William Morris and with bands such as Van Halen, the Eagles and Velvet Revolver. About three years ago, she left the business.
She also recalled some advice Brenna had shared with her: Don't always want to make your favorite pastime your career, because you can lose your love for it.
Melany started a blog, Melanysguydlines.com, as a form of therapy. She had lost her sister, her grandmother and an aunt, and she had gone through two bad breakups within a few years. She continues to increase her online traffic and has more than 60,000 followers on her social media channels.
"I find the work creative, challenging, fascinating, endless and totally rewarding," she said.
The family business is real estate, which she plans to become involved in at some point.
"I'm very blessed that it’s afforded me a very nice life," she said. "I find it amazing that my grandparents came here with no money — my grandparents were Holocaust survivors — and started the business."
Melany, a member of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences advisory board, recently taught a seminar on blogging for the eSociety major.
"I love the UA," she said. "I'm still so close with so many of my friends. You can't come to a better place. I love the school spirit — you feel like a part of something really cool."
In Brenna’s Name
Esther and Bob Berger allowed Melany to choose how she would like to memorialize Brenna.
"It was a no-brainer," Melany said. "Her years at the UA were the best time of her life."
The Brenna Ilana Berger Memorial Scholarship is worth $20,000 a year per student, covering in-state tuition, room and board, and books.
"We identify a male and female student who are dealing with issues in life that are usually no fault of their own," said Chris Segrin, head of the Department of Communication. "They are just in difficult circumstances where it’s going to be really hard to finish college without help."
Segrin is grateful for the generosity of the Bergers, noting that “this family remembered and wanted to give back, and that’s what really separates them from so many others."
"I think Brenna would be very proud to know that her name is on something that helps students who may not have been able to go to college without the help," Melany said.
"It's more than a check. My sister wouldn't want it to be like that. We want to be involved. We want it to make a difference. It's important to us that people don't forget about Brenna. There's never a day that goes by that we don't think about my sister. With this scholarship, we are trying to celebrate her life and who she was as a person and as an educator. She helped a lot of people. I’m happy that she can continue to help more students now in her passing."
The Brenna Ilana Berger Memorial Scholars
The Brenna Ilana Berger Memorial Scholarship has been awarded in two years to four communication majors with disparate life experiences but a common perseverance, resilience and commitment.
- Mindy Royer's husband recently relocated out of state for work, and juggling full-time enrollment, two part-time jobs and four children has proved challenging for her — but not impossible, as evidenced by her graduation last December. The scholarship enabled her to balance school and family. With her tuition and fees covered, she was able to pay bills and give her children a good Christmas. "I would like to work as a coordinator in an educational or nonprofit setting," Royer said. "My mission is to provide positive and sustainable change for the community. Being awarded the Berger Scholarship was an honor for me and my family."
- Katherine Papasotiriou’s parents divorced soon after her freshman year. The family faced enormous financial difficulties as her mother re-entered the workforce for the first time in decades. The scholarship has allowed Papasotiriou her to stay at the UA and enabled her family to allocate their resources toward putting her siblings through school. After she graduates, Papasotiriou aims to gain three years' professional experience before going to graduate school. "I am interested in public relations, advertising, sales and business," she said. "I believe that to be successful in any of those fields, you need to be able to communicate effectively. My major will equip me with the tools necessary to be successful in the future. I want to thank the Bergers for this amazing and generous scholarship. I am so honored."
- Fleet Paul Phillip's basketball dreams were dashed by a career-ending back injury, which in turn meant the loss of his college scholarship. The cost of education, compounded by the need to support his mother, prompted Paul to take on four jobs. The scholarship has helped make his goals, including law school, more accessible and less uncertain. "I owe that diploma at the end of the road to the Berger family," Phillip said. "I would never have made it this far without their support."
- Frank Meza returned to school after 20 years, selling his car and moving into a smaller apartment to help pay for his education. Soon he will be the first person in his family to graduate from college, and he hopes to attend law school. "Words cannot express how grateful I am that such wonderful people trust me — someone they have never met — to use the scholarship to better my future," Meza said. "The scholarship will help me finish my bachelor’s degree in May, and that is truly amazing."