Ukraine-born UTM grad wants to give back

Drake Box graduated from the University of Tennessee at Martin in December 2023 with a bachelor’s degree in mass media and strategic communication with a concentration in public relations. He also graduated from Dyersburg High School in 2018.

If you were to meet him, he would look and sound like any other UT Martin student, but his path to the West Tennessee campus was a lot longer than most students’ paths.

Box was born in Donetsk, Ukraine, a city that has been hit hard by the fighting with Russia that began in February 2022.

“I was adopted when I was 2,” he said. “(My adopted parents) had four daughters in a row, and they said, ‘You know what? We’re going to make sure it’s a boy this time.’

“They got in contact with somebody that adopted from Ukraine and decided to do the same. In 2002, they came and got me, and here we are now.”

Box’s birth parents, ironically, were both born in Moscow, Russia.

“My mom was young, and she found her way to Ukraine for one reason or another and was able to have me,” he said. “She wasn’t able to take care of me with my diagnosis of cerebral palsy – which they didn’t know I had at the time. They just knew that I was disabled in some way.”

Box was adopted by Gary and Lory Box of Dyersburg. Lory died from leukemia when Drake was 10 years old.

Box said he had his sights set on going to UT Martin from the start.

“I sat down and talked with a mentor of sorts, Marsh Naidoo (pronounced “NIGH-doo”),” he said. “I actually interned under her as well. She helped me figure out what I wanted to do with my life.

“I first went to school to be a physical therapist’s assistant to work with kids who have cerebral palsy, because I have mild cerebral palsy. I thought that would be a full-circle moment, but then, I realized my body would just not allow it. So, I decided to focus on another strength of mine, and that’s communicating.”

Box talked with his sister, Jade, who also graduated from UT Martin, and she gave her experience a glowing review.

“She just went on and on about how it was such a great school: how it felt like a home and you weren’t just lost in the numbers of students there, so I decided to give it a shot,” he said. “I took a campus tour, I loved it and just went from there.

“I loved every second that I was in Martin. I made some great friendships, great relationships with my professors and I still talk with some of them to this day.”

Box said he wanted to major in communications because while he was studying physical therapy, he also created his own podcast that he continues to stream.

“I’m a very extroverted person, so I decided to focus on public relations to make the most of my personality and the strengths that I had to offer,” he said. “I actually convinced my now-fiancee, Rebecca Roberts, to change her major from English to PR because she saw how much I enjoyed it.

“I chose communications because it’s something I’m passionate about and it’s something that comes relatively easy, but it also provides a good balance of challenge.”

Box said that one class that really made an impression on him was Crisis Communication with Dr. Jerald Ogg.

“I absolutely loved that class,” Box said. “Actually, it’s one of the classes that made me really look at the career that I wanted in PR. Down the line, once I get myself established in the field, I want to focus on crisis communication because I feel like that’s where you can make the most impact, it provides a daily challenge and it’s not a monotonous routine.

“(Ogg) just made it seem so riveting and interesting. You never knew what you were going to face in each class, so I looked forward to going to that class.”

Box said that crisis communication involves dealing with a situation as a company, responding to a situation to the public and the company in a certain way.

“You talk to your stakeholders a certain way, and you talk to your customers a certain way,” he said. “It’s all about how you execute a statement – how you say it and when you say it. It’s really about being transparent and keeping the public apprised of the crisis and what you’re doing to solve it.”

Box said he was surprised that he also enjoyed feature writing with Dr. Robert Nanney.

“That pushed my writing abilities,” he said. “Dr. Nanney was also my advisor, and he’s the one who pushed me to take that class because he told me he could see my talent in the article that I did for The Pacer (the campus newspaper) about the pre-Ukraine-Russia war.”

Box said that he was a commuting student, so he didn’t spend a lot of time on campus outside of class.

“That being said, I made a lot of great friendships while I was there,” he said. “That’s one great thing about the Department of Mass Media and Strategic Communication, is you come up with those classmates that you see in your early classes like basic PR or intro classes.

“You build those relationships throughout the years, and it just helps build that camaraderie and those friendships. Those prove pivotal whenever you’re stressing out in Finals Week or you need help with an assignment. Having the ability to build those relationships and friendships throughout the years – it’s indescribable and it’s irreplaceable. It just made going to UT Martin completely worth it, 10 times over.”

Box’s podcast, “The Box Factor,” is still going and available on all major platforms.

“It’s like a self-help podcast, based on perspective,” he said. “Everything that I talk about, I’ve seen it firsthand or been through it myself. I’ve been through adoption, and I’ve talked about foreign adoption and domestic adoption. I’ve talked about living with cerebral palsy, and I spoke with a good buddy of mine who has a different type of cerebral palsy.

“It’s mainly an advocacy podcast-slash-self-help podcast. I really enjoy doing it; it’s been very therapeutic for me. I had to find time to do it, but now that I’m graduated, I think I’ve got a little more time on my hands.”

Box will begin a position at Dyersburg State Community College as a public relations and marketing specialist on March 1, but he said his ultimate dream job would be to do public relations work for Shriners Children’s Hospital in St. Louis.

“That’s where I had my surgeries done for my cerebral palsy, and I was actually their poster child in 2006,” he said. “That was a very interesting time of my life, but it was also very transformative. They changed my life forever.

“Without those surgeries and without their physical therapy and help along the way, I probably wouldn’t be able to do as much as I’m able to do now. I really want to make a difference for kids like me who grew up with this disability or similar disabilities and feel like there really isn’t much out there for them. I just want to prove that there is and show them what they can be.”

As a native of Ukraine, Box shows his support for his birth country, speaking about the Ukraine-Russia war on his podcast. The colors of the podcast’s logo are blue and yellow, the colors of the flag of Ukraine, and when he graduated last December, he decorated part of his graduation cap with those colors and placed his late adopted mother’s name, Lory, on his cap as well.

Box said that the way his life has transpired makes him want to encourage others whose lives are hampered with difficulties.

“I want people to remember that human life is valuable,” he said. “Everybody needs help; everybody needs an opportunity to live their best life. I know that I made it here from there because of the sacrifice my parents made, but not every child is lucky. So, keep those things in mind when you are able to enjoy who you are here in America, and know that they just want to have those same opportunities and the ability to make their own choices.

“Just pray for those people in Ukraine and everybody who’s going through any struggle across the world.”

Photo: Drake Box of Dyersburg shakes hands with Chancellor Yancy Freeman upon receiving his diploma in the fall commencement ceremony on Dec. 9, 2023.

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