"Dream as if you'll live forever, live as if you'll die today."
Michelle was an extraordinary young woman who lived her life with unbridled enthusiasm. After graduating from high school, she longed to attend a four-year university and earn her undergraduate degree, but she was worried that her learning challenges would derail her dream.
When Michelle discovered the Strategic Alternative Learning Techniques (SALT) Center at the University of Arizona, she was thrilled – this comprehensive academic support program for students who learn differently would equip her with the skills she needed to be successful in college. With the help of the SALT Center, she knew she could graduate with a degree that would enable her to pursue a meaningful career.
Michelle’s passion found a great home at the SALT Center and the University of Arizona. She majored in Retailing and Consumer Sciences in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and became one of the first students who utilized SALT Center services to join the prestigious business fraternity, Alpha Kappa Psi. With a lot of hard work and determination, her dream of becoming a successful college student was finally a reality.
During her sophomore year, Michelle’s life was tragically cut short – she was killed in a motorcycle accident at just 20 years old. While her passing was a devastating loss, her exuberant spirit and kind heart touched everyone who knew her; she made an indelible impact on the world she left behind.
In order to commemorate her legacy, Michelle’s friends and family created the Michelle Combs Endowed Fund through the University of Arizona Foundation. Contributions to this fund will be awarded to students enrolled in the SALT Center who exhibit adventurous, energetic, and goal-oriented characteristics. It will also provide financial support for study abroad and/or leadership development opportunities for students who learn differently.
We encourage you to contribute to the Michelle Combs Endowed Fund to help make more dreams come true – her memory lives on as her endowment touches the lives of others.
This fund was established in Michelle’s memory by her friends and family, with substantial contributions from members of her business fraternity, Alpha Kappa Psi.
To view the 2005 Arizona Daily Wildcat article about Michelle's passing, click the following link: http://wc.arizona.edu/papers/98/193/01_3.html
Michelle Grace Combs
February 26, 1985 - October 1, 2005
Michelle was born on February 26, 1985, in Berkeley, California. She grew up in Pleasanton, attending Walnut Grove Elementary School, Harvest Park Middle School, and Amador Valley High School.
Michelle was diagnosed with Dyslexia in elementary school. Since schools often teach in a standardized manner, an experiential learner like Michelle found conceptual subjects, such as reading and math, more like foreign languages. However, she didn’t let her learning challenge define her. Like many children who learn differently, she compensated. What she lacked in book smarts, she made up for with tenacious good-humor. She excelled in sports – namely soccer and track (hurdles) - and hands-on classes.
As a girl, Michelle could walk from one of Main Street to the other and come home with two job offers. She was the kind of child who loved to work. Her enthusiasm was infectious, and she brightened every doorway that she entered. One of her bosses recalled, "Michelle couldn't always make change, but we couldn't fire her. She was our best employee. Whatever change she gave away, she made up for in sales and good will."
Michelle worked more jobs in her 20 short years than both of her parents worked in their lifetime. This wasn’t because she couldn't hold onto a position; she just wanted to try everything. Her employment history included bagging groceries, working at a lighting fixture store, being a barista, an amateur florist, a hostess at a restaurant, selling lipstick at the Alameda County Fair, and babysitting. One year, she walked from business to business, raising hundreds of dollars to register for a modeling competition. Clearly, the term “hard worker” doesn’t do justice to Michelle’s dedication and drive. She dreamed of attending college and becoming a successful businesswoman, but she would have to overcome some obstacles to make that dream a reality.
When Michelle graduated from high school, she had a C+ GPA and a combined SAT score of less than 800. Considering her grades and test scores, her goal of moving away from home and attending a four-year university did not seem likely. She spent one bittersweet year at community college to test the waters – she loved the college-level soccer she played, but felt that, socially, she hadn't really moved beyond high school. She wanted more – so, in true Michelle fashion, she set out to find it.
With help from a college coach, Michelle applied and was accepted to the University of Arizona. Her acceptance was based, in large part, on her high IQ. Because she knew she would need academic support, she also applied to the SALT Center. With the help of her Student Support Specialist, as well as her tutors, she achieved a B average her first year - she came to believe that she could be the accomplished businesswoman she wanted to be.
When she died the following fall, she was living her dream. She was a successful student in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, majoring in Retailing and Consumer Science, and minoring in Psychology. She belonged to Alpha Kappa Psi, a national business fraternity. She lived in a house with her best friends. She took road trips, and was planning to spend a semester abroad.
Michelle’s story is proof that dreams do come true – she overcame every obstacle in her way to achieve the life she wanted to live. Her legacy will live on through her family, her friends, and her endowed fund with the SALT Center.
Michelle is lovingly remembered by her family: her mother, Jocelyn Combs; her father, Richard Combs, and his wife, Baerbel Steffestun; her sister, Cassie Combs, her brother-in-law, Bruce Aasen, and their daughter, Sierra Michelle Aasen (Michelle's namesake); her grandparents, Dr. Robert and Betty Combs, and Sheila Lamson.
The following is a letter that Michelle wrote to herself at age 13 for a class assignment. Five years later, her teacher, Mrs. Seipel, sent it to her when she graduated from high school:
"What kind of person are you? Do you have a lot of friends? can people count on you? are you nice to people? I hope this is true that you are just a nice person. Do you still like candy right now? I love candy cant live without it. It is the best stuff on earth!! Well right now it is. "You know me. I don't like to write a lot. But I hope that you are doing good in school, you have the things you need. Most of all I hope you have a good life. That is why you are here. See you latter!!"
Michelle writing in her journal at age 15 on a trip to Paris and London with her family:
"I think that I have learned a lot of things on this trip like . . . to give tips, always share your salad, give your parents money and you might get it back. Don't pack a shirt for every day. You can wear them more than once . . . Have good table manners. Enjoy every day to the best you can. I learned most of this by not doing it right. But I had fun. I got to go to the other side of the world meet new people and see different things I have never seen before. Everything on this trip happened for a very good reason!"
Michelle’s application letter to the SALT Center at age 19, the spring before she entered the University of Arizona:
"This last October I visited the University of Arizona. I spent a day with my mom there and we walked around the campus, talked with students, learned about the dorms, sat in on a philosophy class and had a meeting at the S.A.L.T. All the students that I talked to said they loved the school and they were really glad they chose to go to the University of Arizona. I could understand why with all the great things that the school offers. Especially what the S.A.L.T program offers. I was happy to hear that fro every class a student has they have a tutor that will help them with that class and they can go over what you learned that day or work on projects that are coming up. I feel that this would help me a lot because when I have a tutor in a class I'm able to really learn and understand the material. I had never heard about a school giving that kind of tutoring before and I think it is such a wonderful idea. This way I know that I can talk to the tutor about any problems I might be having in a class and they will know the best way to help me. All the resources that the S.A.L.T program has like the computer that you can talk to and will write what you want to put is something I have never heard about before and it is nice to know that the S.A.L.T center has top of the line resources for students. After talking with heather from the S.A.LT center I realized that the program would help me significantly in school.
Currently I'm attending Las Positas community college in Livermore California. I'm not in any program to help me with my learning disabilities. I did well in some of my classes and had a hard time in a couple of my classes. Last semester I was in a psychology class and I was able to get a C in it because I understood the material in the class for the most part but I still had a hard time taking tests. In my history class I was not so fortunate, I did not understand the material at all because it was something I had not learned in a lot time. I got a F in the class and I wish I had gone to a tutor or worked with other people from the class to go over the material I had learned. I did learn a lot from that class in a sense that a night class one day a week for 3 hours was not the best thing for me. I now know that if I'm having a difficult time in a class I need to get help with the material I'm learning right away, that way I will not fall behind. I feel if I got the support that S.A.L.T is offering to their students I would strive in my schoolwork and do a lot better than I have in the past. Also last semester I was on the Las Positas soccer team and really had a good time playing against other team around the area. We did get to travel a little bit so that was fun. This semester I joined an Administrative Justice Club and I took the role as being the club president. It is a new club to the school so we are starting from nothing. I think it will be a fun and challenging job to take on."
Michelle writing "About Me" for her social network profile at age 20, just weeks before she died:
"I'm a student at the University of Arizona, second year here and I'm loving it. My major is Retail and my minor is Psychology. Not sure what i want to do with that but there are so many different things i can do i'm not really in a rush to decide what i want to do for the rest of my life. I'm a pretty busy person always wanting to do something new and stay busy but I'm also a very easy going person enjoying going to school and learning as much interesting necessary and unnecessary stuff as possible, i would have never learned this stuff if i did not go to college so I'm glad I'm going to school, if that makes any sense at all. I'm trying to live each day to the fullest and trying not to live in the past because you can't change what has happened you can only learn from it.”
Brody is a leader to his peers and teammates. He plays on the AZ Hockey Team and provides support, encouragement and amazing energy to his teammates. Brody spent the summer playing in the 2022 Maccabi Games in Israel, representing the United States for hockey. The Maccabi Games is the largest international sporting event outside of the Olympics. Brody scored the 1st goal, and the team won a Gold Medal (the first time a USA hockey team has achieved this honor at this event).
From his Specialist, “Brody is one of the most humble students that I have met, has overcome medical challenges from birth. He exemplifies Michelle Combs’ incredible spirit.”
Mari beams positive energy no matter what the context. She works towards her goals, makes adjustments as new circumstances arise, then re-doubles her efforts.
She is a positive influence on those around her and her sense of adventure is unbounded. She sees new challenges not as roadblocks or obstacles, but new areas to explore and surmount. It’s not that she doesn’t see the difficulty, she recognizes it, and takes on the challenge with a smile rather than trying to minimize it.
Mari is interested in graduate school in the field of audiology, art history, and teaching. There is no doubt that she will accomplish anything she sets her mind to do.
Oliver is a Junior majoring in Criminal Justice Studies and Emergency Medical Services. He is highly involved with the SALT Center and has recently become a Peer Mentor in SALT's new mentorship program. He is goal oriented and self-driven. He is also a very determined and kind individual. Oliver had a rough start at UA and was unsure he would be able to succeed-- but through his struggles, he persevered. He works hard in his position at the UA bookstore on top of being a peer mentor and maintaining excellent grades. In fact, he is on track to graduate early but does not want to miss the opportunity to study abroad.
Jaxon is a pre-business Sophomore who comes to the SALT Center with a positive attitude and a contagious, unmatched energy. He's a full-time student, athlete, friend, son, brother, and he makes time for it all. Every week, he has a new story to tell about lacrosse, an upcoming trip to see his friends and family in California, friends coming into town, or trying something new in Tucson. He never turns down an adventure or a chance to help someone make their day better.
Jaxon aspires to be a firefighter because “he wants to help people”. With his passion for service as well as protecting people—and making them smile—we have no doubt that he will be a tremendous firefighter.
Theone Lasa Grundell
Theone is one of the most determined people I know. In spite of weekly ongoing is PT due to physical issues she has, she does not complain about the pain or the 'time' it takes from her life. Theone has no time for theatrics or negativity. She embraces life with both arms and then some! She is appreciative of every moment of every day - not taking anything for granted. Her goal is to support and teach small children. Theone knows that the early years in life are precious and important and she wants to contribute to supporting positive self image, adventure and exploration in the young people she works with.
Caroline is an triathlete who has biked, swam and run countless miles. She has been a life-guard and is involved in campus activities. She has had to push through obstacles of various types including physical injury, but she retains the strongest resolve to do well in all that she pursues. I recall a funny story of how Caroline once bartered swim lessons to a student who could provide tutoring in a difficult subject. Caroline is super resourceful, vibrant, bright and dedicated. She sets high goals for herself and is mature beyond her years. As a senior, Caroline is a great example of a young person who exemplifies the brightest of futures and has high personal goals for herself.
Eliza Brooke Schafer
Brooke is an incredible human being. She had a permanent smile on her face and is full of positivity and possibility. Brooke is not afraid of new challenges and seeks new experiences to grow. She has moved to California during the summer to gain experience with event planning and client management. She is going to London this dinner for study abroad and will be in an internship while she is studying. She exudes possibility and lives by the motto "why not". I love meeting with her because she is like actual sunshine and you can't help but to feel positive when you talk with her. She is incredible and so deserving of this amazing honor.
Dash is as outgoing as one can be. After transferring to the U of A for the Fall '18 semester, he became involved in a number of student groups. I am honored when he tells me about his experiences hiking, participating in Krav Maga, or simply conversing with his professors. Dash has visited more countries than most people could ever name, and when he does, he is never just a tourist. He participates yearly in opportunities to visit countries that are underdeveloped countries where he does outreach and volunteer work . He immerses himself in the culture of the regions he visits and does so simply to experience life to the fullest.
Kayla is extremely involved in a number of areas around campus. She has such a positive energy that you can not help but be effected by! She has such an amazing attitude, even when things don't go as planned. Her ability to balance very intense classes and schedules with her social life is so impressive - and she does it all with such a genuine smile on her face!
Nicholas' curiosity about the world is contagious. A political science major with a minor in Latin American studies and an emphasis in foreign affairs, Nicholas is well-informed on happenings around the globe and shows a sincere interest in what he learns in and out of the classroom. Despite a variety of engagements including rugby, student politics, and a part-time job, Nicholas maintains high marks in his courses, including an A in sixth-semester Spanish. Last summer, Nicholas studied abroad in Cuba and this summer, he attended the London School of Economics. Nicholas approaches life with an amazing sense of humor and an insatiable quest for intellectual stimulation; he seems to find his energy through connecting with others. For these traits and so many more, he is well deserving of the Michelle Combs award.
"'Seeking out Life’s Adventures' could be the motto of Tyler Topping! It is hard to pick a weekend where Tyler did not go and enjoy the beauty and wonder of the great outdoors. Specifically he and his friends journey up to Mt. Lemmon at least once a month. Skateboarding and long boarding tournaments are another fun way Tyler spends his time. Some appointments I can tell he might have had some gnarly scrapes, but he never complains and always shrugs it off stating, “It was worth it.” For me, it is such a pleasure working with Tyler because he not only cares about adventure, but he has the big picture in mind of wanting to make an impact and help the planet. He looks at life through an amazing set of eyes and always comes in each week with a positive outlook." - Amy Dreweatt, Senior Student Support Specialist
"Helena does all that she sets her mind to and is a bright caring and daring young woman with the goal of one day becoming a veterinarian. During her breaks from school she has supported building a fence around a wildlife refuge in California, helped with the difficult birthing of a calf, and helped care for wildlife. While here at school, she is very active in the Alphi Phi Omega service organization, Marine Awareness & Conservation Society, and consistently maintains a high GPA. She also plays racket ball and volleyball as she has time." - Caroline Ragano, Senior Student Support Specialist
"Kylee is a very friendly and charismatic person. She loves to learn and meet new people. She always has a positive attitude. If she encounters a setback, such as a low test grade, she stays positive and focuses on what to do better next time. Kylee’s current goal is to study abroad in Hong Kong next summer. She is actively seeking information and meeting with advisors to make sure she is on track to complete this goal. She achieved a 4.0 during her first semester at UA. She works extremely hard to stay organized and gets her work done ahead of time. She uses tutoring and her meetings with me consistently and effectively. Coincidentally, Kylee is majoring in Retailing, just like Michelle." - Jessica Stansel-Clarke, Senior Student Support Specialist
"Hannah is always involved in activities in and out of the UA environment. She has been involved in the Children’s Hospital in San Diego and was recognized as a volunteer at an event last December. She has been on the UA Women’s Lacrosse team this past academic year. Unfortunately, Hannah had an ankle injury and wasn’t able to play much during the season. Hannah put her energy into begin on the Executive Board in charge of Social Media for next season. In addition to her ankle injury, she’s also been dealing with a heart condition that was causing her to faint. She’s maintained a positive, resilient, and humble spirit in the face of all of this adversity. She also took a position as the head of the P.R. department in charge of media for a new college bowl game. its the Rocket City Bowl out of Huntsville, AL, and she had a paid position there this summer. Hannah is working toward getting as much real-world experience as she can while she is a student. She is a Communication major with an E-Society minor." - Rose Audretsch, Senior Student Support Specialist
"If you ever have the pleasure of meeting Mackenzie, you will sense right away her bountiful energy! She is a joy to work with an her positive demeanor can light up a room. The wonderful thing about her is that she wishes to use her uplifting personality to help students in special education. Mackenzie loves to compete and is very active in the UA Women’s Lacrosse Team. She is able to maintain her academics while traveling with the team, and this upcoming year she will be Captain! As early as her freshman year, Mackenzie was determined to become a certified Special Education teacher for grades K-12. She has already gone through the first step of completing her pre-professional coursework for the College of Education and applied to this rigorous program. Her academics have been a priority and her outstanding efforts can be seen with her current 3.6GPA. Mackenzie has been accepted into the Special Education Mild-to-Moderate cohort group and will begin her progressional program in the fall. I feel she is definitely deserving of this honor." - Amy Dreweatt, Senior Student Support Specialist
"Piper is a very creative and innovative person who works hard to accomplish all that is needed. She works nearly full-time at a local store...she comes to her appointments with me and with her tutors religiously. If she needs to miss, she calls in and reschedules. Her level of responsibility is outstanding." - Caroline Ragano, Senior Student Support Specialist
"Adam has never taken no for an answer. He kept pursuing admittance to Eller even when things got tough. He got in. He asked about working as a Tech Coach in the SALT Center computer lab, and got the position after showing great interest and knowledge of assistive technology. He has also recently become one of our SALT Center student ambassadors." - Juan Godoy, Senior Student Support Specialist
"Noah has a mindset that isn’t always common to a young man of his age. He is aware of the world that we share with others and keenly aware that not everyone has the same advantages that we enjoy in the United States. He has traveled to many parts of the world and had made the lives of others better as a result of his compassion for others and his selflessness." Jennifer Hansen, Senior Student Support Specialist
The 2014 SALT Center Family Weekend Celebration & Awards Ceremony saw the first recipients of the Michelle Combs Award. The award was created to commemorate the life of Michelle Combs, a UA student who used SALT Center services. Michelle lost her life during her sophomore year. Her family and friends established this award and an endowment in her honor. The award is given to students who exhibit her adventurous, energetic, and goal-oriented characteristics.
I had the opportunity to meet with one of the SALT Center’s first Michelle Combs Award recipients, Christian Brown. Finding a little time between classes, Christian and I sat down near the Student Union. Even with his full bags and hurried demeanor, he seemed comfortable with the hustle.
I asked Christian to tell me a little more about himself, and he had plenty to share - after several changes to his major, Christian found his way into Systems Engineering, and has just one year left before graduating. He is a member of the Society Civil Engineers, and a Webmaster for the University of Arizona Flying Club. He has interned for the Kiewit Corporation. He is a volunteer at Wright Flight, a non-profit that exposes kids to aviation, and a volunteer at Habitat for Humanity. When he finds himself back home in Hawaii, he and his father volunteer at their church. With all of these activities, he still finds time to give words of wisdom to his sister about college life.
Between his academic pursuits, multiple volunteer efforts, club events, and dedication to his family, Christian says he hardly has any time left over for socializing: “My biggest challenge is to find down time. Between school and volunteer obligations, I don't find much time to spend with friends.” Upon further reflection, he added, “But I do find that the volunteer time fulfilling. It is social, and allows me to connect with different people, make more friends, and it definitely helps me network.”
When asked about being nominated for the Michelle Combs Award, Christian described its immediate impact: “Digging into the award, and who Michelle was, was heart breaking…that was me, she was around my age when she died.” He recognized with modesty that his involvements in his community reflect Michelle’s drive: “We (all of the nominees) are deserving of the award, but I guess they the essence of Michelle in me…the legacy of this award was that you live your life to the fullest.”
I think its safe to say Christian is doing just that - we wish him the best in his endeavors, and we are proud to call him a recipient of the Michelle Combs Award.
Coming to The University of Arizona was a logical choice for self-proclaimed "country girl," Morghan Sonderer. Having learned responsibility at a young age while working on her family's ranch, Morghan knew that she would need to take a number of variables into consideration when deciding which University to attend. The academic support offered at the SALT Center, the variety of engagement opportunities at the UA, and being from Southern Arizona all factored into her decision to become a Wildcat.
When asked what stands out about her time at the UA/SALT Center, Morghan says that, "the friendliness, feeling welcome, and feeling like part of the SALT family," have been key to her experience. She added that the SALT Center has given her the opportunity to get to know more people on the UA campus, particularly through the relationships she has built with her tutors: "The tutors are so nice to work with. They care about the student's understanding."
Since the beginning of her academic career at the UA, Morghan has managed to find the time to be involved at the University and throughout the greater community around Tucson. She is a member of the Pre-Vet Club and the UA Equestrian Team. She works with Enactus, assists with animal and horse rescue groups, volunteers with veterinary clinics, and participates in other events, such as the Tucson Rodeo and El Tour de Tucson. In addition to these organizations, Morghan has volunteered at the Reid Park Zoo and the Pima County Fairgrounds for special events, all while majoring in Animal Science at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, with a specialization in Equine Science, and pursuing a minor in Business Administration.
When asked about her academic accomplishments, Morghan says that she is proud of making the Dean's List, maintaining her high GPA, and being invited to join honor clubs and organizations, like the National Society of Collegiate Scholars. She mentioned that the SALT Center has helped her achieve the GPA requirements to be admitted to these organizations: "Use of [SALT Center services] helped me with grades and receiving scholarships."
Morghan owns that attaining this level of success has not always been easy: "To some extent, school is challenging." However, after growing up on a ranch, Morghan is used to challenges. She sees them as an opportunity to dig in and face the hard work head-on. She stresses that the SALT Center has helped her overcome some of these challenges: "The tutors help with planning ahead and staying on top of things so that I don't procrastinate."
It is Morghan's passion for her goals, her friends, and her family that earned her the Michelle Combs Award. The award is given in honor of former UA student and SALT Center participant, Michelle Combs, who, Morghan learned, was, "friendly, outgoing, kind, and willing to help others." The Michelle Combs Award was established last fall and recognizes students who exhibit Michelle's adventurous, energetic, and goal-oriented characteristics. It was given to two students during the 2014 Family Weekend Celebration & Awards Ceremony. Morghan admitted that being one of the first recipients of this award caught her a bit off-guard, but that she is incredibly humbled by it: "It is an honor. I was honored knowing what the award was…who it represented."
One cannot help but admire Morghan's positive attitude, academic success, and drive to help others. We are so proud of Morghan, and we know that her ability to turn a challenge into an opportunity will help her achieve all her goals. We can't wait to see what else she will accomplish.