Being Your Best Person
By Lini S. Kadaba
As Travis Branch ’21 shares his story of struggle and success, he always returns to his mother, Cindy, a single parent who faced her own trials with mental illness and a courageous battle with cancer.
“Everything she did was for me,” says the 37-year-old executive vice president for PNC Bank who lives in Muhlenberg, Pa. When food was tight, his mother prioritized her son’s meals, and from his early school days, she impressed upon him the importance of education.
That’s why Branch says he was so determined to earn his bachelor’s degree and make her proud.
“My mother would always say to me, ‘The one thing that can’t be taken from you is your education,’” he says. “That was a differentiator for her.”
It took a dozen years — family and work responsibilities delaying what he knew he wanted to accomplish. But Branch crossed the Commencement stage last spring, completing his business administration degree. Sadly, Cindy Branch died in 2019 after a lengthy battle with breast cancer.
“I remember telling her,” he says of his mother’s last days, “‘I only have a few more classes. You’ll be so excited.'”
“That degree wasn’t just for me,” he continues. “It was for us.”
Branch has long been driven despite the obstacles life has presented. His is a story of quiet struggle, of fortitude and hard work.
The dealmaker, in many ways, was Albright College’s flexible degree completion program. The two-year curriculum, which the college pioneered in the Berks County area, allows nontraditional students to earn a bachelor’s on their own timeline, says Melissa Wells ’86, academic program chair for business administration in the School of Professional Studies.
Wells remembers Branch from the 2019 orientation, when he was resuming classes after a hiatus. He stood out because he already had spent a decade as an off-and-on student and he was an accomplished executive.
“The question that came to mind was, ‘Why were you getting a degree?’” Wells says. “It was more intrinsic reward and personal satisfaction than anything external. That was very remarkable to me — that he was that motivated.”
Growing up poor in Reading’s poor Sixth Ward, Branch realized early that his home life would be unconventional, as he learned to navigate challenging moments brought on by his mother’s schizophrenia. “At 10, 11 years old, I had moments when I was the parent,” he says, helping her pay bills and stay organized. “Not a lot of time to figure out how to be a kid.”
For sixth grade, Branch attended the Milton Hershey School, a boarding school for low-income children, where he thrived academically. After junior year, though, Branch returned to Reading to be closer to a mother ill with cancer. When his girlfriend, Jessica Carl, got pregnant, the then 18-year-old’s focus became his family. The two married, and Branch went to work, taking on part-time jobs as a teller and a customer service rep.
After their son Eric was born in 2004, Jessica completed her biology degree and joined the pharmaceutical industry, while Branch rose to branch manager at Citizens Bank, intent on providing his family the financial security he never had. In 2008, the couple had a second son, Dante.
Despite the success, Branch still felt incomplete and decided to enroll in Albright’s accelerated degree program. His mother’s urgings played a part. “She kept asking, `Are you taking classes? I didn’t get my degree. I want you to be the first one,’” he says.
But after a couple of years, the load of being a husband, father, son and professional became too much. “It just fell by the wayside,” Branch says of school. “I always felt busy.”
Over the next dozen years, he climbed the banking ranks, eventually joining PNC. His success despite having no college degree spoke to his “grit and determination and persistence,” says Wells, who invited Branch to speak to her senior seminar classes earlier this year. “He doesn’t give up.”
Still, his uncompleted degree proved a burden. Branch recalls his first bank board meeting. “I was so intimidated,” he says. He was the only person of color, and he realized everyone else had a degree as they swapped college stories. “I felt very small, less than,” he says. “I was thinking, ‘Oh my, God, if anyone knew.’ It became unbearable.”
In 2019, Branch told himself it was now or never, for his mother, for his sons, for himself. He rejoined Albright, then almost stopped again because of a promotion heavy on travel. It was March of 2020. A global pandemic soon walloped the world; travel ground to a halt. “It enabled me to do class after class after class,” he says.
It was challenging, Branch allows, especially all those papers, but he worked hard. “My mother always said, ‘I want you to be your best person,’ and in my mind, I interpreted that as work hard,” he says. “I will always outwork anyone. I’ll stay up later, I’ll research longer, I’ll send out that one last email.”
When Branch got his diploma, he says, he shed tears of joy. “I felt a big relief, like a rock was lifted off my shoulders,” he says. Finally, he had fulfilled his commitment to his mother — and to himself.
“I no longer feel inferior,” Branch says. “I no longer feel less than.”
– Journalist Lini S. Kadaba is a former Philadelphia Inquirer staff writer based in Newtown Square, Pa.