Junior Alison Cubbellotti Receives Browning Memorial Scholarship

News Story: May 1, 2011
Alison Cubbellotti '13, this year’s
Browning Memorial Scholarship recipient,
is pictured here with Jim Browning,
brother of the late Scott Browning for whom the scholarship is named. 

Alison Cubbellotti, ’13, this year’s Browning Memorial Scholarship recipient, has a lot to be thankful for – and she takes none of it for granted.

Cubbellotti, 21, from Trumbull, resumed her Sacred Heart University education in fall 2010 after being deathly ill since her junior year in high school. She suffered from a rare liver disease called primary sclerosing cholangitis. The disease is so deadly that after she received a liver transplant, the doctors revealed to her family that if the operation hadn’t happened when it did, she would have had only a couple of months to live.

She essentially lost two academic years because of her illness and would have graduated in May 2011 if she had been healthy. But she is happy to be back in the swing of things, with a healthy liver and a great outlook on life. In the fall, she will be a junior, continuing her nursing education. She wants to work with pediatric transplant patients because, she said, after all, that’s what she knows from experience.

“In my first year here, I got really sick and moved home,” she said. “And in my sophomore year, I had a hard time focusing and was having trouble with my memory.” So she withdrew from classes.

Her friends and family members were tested to see if they were compatible liver donors. One of them was her brother, who was determined to be a successful match. He went into surgery on April 7, 2009. After a couple of hours, and taking out his gall bladder, the doctors realized that his anatomy was not exactly what they wanted for a perfect transplant. “They could only have found that out by opening him up. The surgery was terminated and I never went into the operating room,” she said. He spent a week in the hospital and it took him a month before we was able to return to New York, where he lives.

After that unsuccessful transplant attempt and with Cubbellotti’s health deteriorating, her mother circulated an e-mail through the SHU community about her daughter’s need for a donor. John Vales, a fellow student from New York, stepped forward. Vales, who graduated in 2010, was a successful match and donated part of his liver – 60 percent of it, said Cubbellotti – in fall 2009. In addition to saving Cubbellotti’s life, Vales was awarded the Bishop Walter W. Curtis Medal of Honor for his selfless act to help another human being.

Within two weeks of the operation, Cubbellotti said, her liver was whole again. In fact, she said, “I felt better as soon as I woke up” in the intensive care unit at Yale New Haven Hospital. And she has steadily improved since. She refers to her regenerated organ made possible by Vales as “our liver.”

To Cubbellotti, Vales is an angel and she owes every positive experience she has had since the transplant to him. About 10 days after she went home from the hospital, he asked to meet her. “I was nervous,” she said. “What do you say? Thank you? That didn’t seem like enough.” When they met for the first time, they held hands and cried, and discovered they have some things in common – besides a liver.

Her years-long illness was hard emotionally, physically and financially on Cubbellotti’s family. She lost an academic scholarship because she was sick and out of school and her mother took a leave from her job to be with her daughter as much as possible. So when she got the letter telling her that she would receive the Browning scholarship, she said she was “overwhelmed and honored.”

“I was speechless,” she said, “and you can tell I am hardly ever speechless.” The scholarship, she said, will pay for her entire junior year at SHU.

When she isn’t with her “great group of friends” – some she has known since sixth grade and they were beside her throughout her struggles – she raises money for the American Liver Foundation through “Ali’s Angels,” a team that does an annual walk in September. She also helps raise money for CT PSC Partners; $100,000 already has been garnered solely for researchers to find a cure. She mentors pediatric transplant patients at Yale New Haven, too.

As for her upbeat attitude, Cubbellotti said “being negative only brings you down.” When she thinks about all she has endured, she said, “God wouldn’t have chosen me if I couldn’t handle it.”

In its 24th year, the scholarship is in memory of Scott Browning, who was a senior computer engineering student at the University of Bridgeport when he died in 1986. His brother, Jim, had one goal in mind when he established the scholarship, first at UB, then when he transferred it to SHU. “I had one thing in mind – keeping my brother’s memory alive. I wanted people who knew him to never forget him and people who didn’t know him to ask who he was,” he said.

After he heard the heartbreaking stories of some of the first-year recipients, he added another goal. He requested that SHU’s Financial Aid Department, which chooses the recipient, to “every year, consider a student with a hardship.”

He is not actively involved in choosing the recipient. If he were responsible for selecting from among the numerous applications, he said he “wouldn’t be able to say no” to any of them.

The scholarship has raised approximately $600,000 since its inception through various fundraising means – golf tournaments, basketball camps, dinner dances and the annual NCAA Men’s Basketball Final Four March Madness dinner and raffle at SHU, at which the recipients are introduced and feted.

He has kept in touch with many of the former recipients, including hosting a 10th anniversary dinner for them. And that is where he learned how well some of them have done – because of their hard work and the help they received from the scholarship. “It is great to see them go so far – from being struggling students to what they are today,” he said of the successful recipients.

Scott Browning’s college friends, all of whom hung out together at UB, are actively involved too and attend the yearly event at which the scholarship is awarded. Even Cubbellotti is taken by the family-like feel of the scholarship. About Scott’s friends, she said, “You can see how amazing he was. They help live out his legacy.”

The Browning scholarship has had its share of coincidences, said Jim Browning, who calls everything surrounding it “magical.” One of the first Sacred Heart recipients was Jorge Rivera, who is Cubbelotti’s Godfather; she, in turn, is Rivera’s son’s Godmother. Then there was Greg Webster, who attended the first-ever scholarship dinner. Browning learned that evening that Webster, who lived in a house on Main Street in Bridgeport and was a good friend of Scott, had been chosen for the award. Webster thought Browning had something to do with the selection, but he did not have anything to do with it.

And then there’s Cubbellotti herself. Turns out, Cubbellotti and Browning’s daughter Olivia are longtime friends and went to high school together. Further, Mrs. Cubbellotti and Browning’s wife Sue are good friends. So it was a welcomed surprised when the Financial Aid Department recommended Cubbellotti as the Browning scholarship recipient.

When he contemplates the past 24 years and looks forward to the 25th anniversary of the scholarship, Browning said, “I feel good about helping others. My brother would be proud of it.”

He only asks one thing of the recipients of the Browning Scholarship. When they have the opportunity to help someone in their life, pay it forward.