With finals complete and graduation yet a week away, Samantha Stauber has a little free time for once.
The 23-year-old Presidential Scholar set a frenetic pace at San Diego State, majoring in criminal justice and competing on the crew team.
For the rowers, she is the coxswain – pronounced cocks-in – steering the boat and calling the strokes. She considers the wind, current and competition, and adjusts the rhythm of her clarion calls accordingly.
“You have to have an inner drive to compete,” Stauber said. “Every girl in that boat depends on you. You’re steering the boat, commanding the girls and watching your opponents. You have to fight for every last inch if you want to win.”
That steely determination served her and her teammates well in competition, but it played a far more significant role in Stauber's fight against a more formidable opponent – cancer.
“These are not migraines”
"I had these terrible headaches for years," Stauber recalled, describing childhood visits to her doctor, who initially diagnosed dehydration before settling on migraines.
Finally in 2007, just months after accepting SDSU's presidential grant that would essentially cover her entire college education, she sought a more thorough examination.
"I told the doctor, 'These are not migraines.'"
A blood test revealed cancer. She had a brain tumor – larger than a golf ball, but smaller than a tennis ball.
"She always describes herself as stubborn,
but a better word for it is tenacious."
After several consultations with doctors and many long nights agonizing with family, she decided to take a less-invasive medicinal approach to fight the cancer.
The tumor grew, pressing against Stauber's optic nerve and causing her vision to blur. Nevertheless, with little surprise to family and friends, she enrolled on time for classes in the fall.
Sandra Cook, SDSU's assistant vice president for Academic Affairs, met Stauber before the diagnosis as part of the recruitment process for the Presidential Scholars program.
"She was a spitfire, even then," Cook said with a chuckle. "She's got a unique combination of intelligence and optimism – with fearlessness to last."
She would need it. On the third day of the semester, in the middle of class, cerebral spinal fluid began to leak from her nose onto her notes.
She was rushed to Huntington Hospital in Pasadena. Surgeons guided an endoscope through her nose and under her top lip, breaking nearly all the bones in her face, to resect 90 percent of the tumor. The remaining tentacles of the tumor had leeched onto her carotid artery, temporarily taking it hostage until chemotherapy and precise radiation blasts lessened it further.
The setback cost her a year in recovery, but she returned to SDSU in the fall of 2008 and began her studies anew.
“I’m driven with a purpose”
Friends often say to Stauber, “You’re too nice to be a cop.” But she sees that as an asset she will bring to her future profession.
Crew teammates wore this ribbon in honor of Stauber at a recent competition.
Criminal justice classes led her to volunteer at a juvenile detention facility in Kearny Mesa, where she met bullies, car thieves and drug addicts.
“These kids have either had poor influences or had to fend for themselves,” she said. “Nobody was there to show them right from wrong and they made bad choices. It’s especially painful when even a little misstep is hard to recover from.”
Her experience taught her recidivism is far more likely than rehabilitation for incarcerated youth. “It takes extraordinary effort from the community, city and their families to get them on the right track.”
Stauber's volunteer and classroom experiences strengthened her resolve to pursue a career in law enforcement.
The Los Angeles Police Academy beckons, but Pepperdine University’s law school also accepted her. She must decide by July.
“I want to make a difference in this world and I want to do it as a police officer,” she said with a wave of her hand, seeming to dismiss those who have called her aspirations naïve. “I am driven with a purpose. One day, I will be L.A.’s first female chief of police.”
SDSU’s Cook, who has developed a very close friendship with Stauber, said she believes it will happen.
“I work with so many students and their dreams can seem so far out of reach,” Cook said. “But Samantha is different. If she wants something, she has the smarts and the determination to get it.”
“I needed to compete”
These words ring true to SDSU women’s crew coach Jennifer Lewis.
“She always describes herself as stubborn, but a better word for it is tenacious,” Lewis said. “For an athlete, it’s an invaluable trait.”
At 5 feet, 6 inches and 115 pounds, Stauber’s lithe frame makes her an unlikely collegiate rower. What she lacked in broad shoulders, she made up for with athleticism and a remarkable will.
Samantha Stauber and her older brother, Houston, enjoy an athletics banquet. The bowling pin is called the "Stryker Award," which recognizes tenacity and dedication.
“Rowing is a lifestyle,” Stauber said. “Your workout is finished before the sun comes up.”
The sport requires strenuous endurance and a strength regimen that challenges the most able of bodies, never mind one ravaged by cancer and debilitating treatments.
“It was difficult to keep up, but I was hooked,” she said. “Rowing is a beautiful sport. It’s the drive to push yourself beyond your mental barriers – beyond where you think your body can go.”
Lewis described how Stauber scheduled treatments around practices and competitions.
“Sometimes she looked tired and fatigued,” Lewis said. “But her personality, demeanor and passion for rowing were amazing. It’s almost impossible to understand.
“Her teammates didn’t know how sick she was because of her commitment to the team and drive to always be there and compete.”
Stauber said crew played a significant role in her survival.
“I had a huge support network at San Diego State,” she said. She relied on faculty, staff and her older brother, Houston, who was a year ahead of her in school. “But crew was part of that network, too. I needed my teammates and I needed to compete.”
“My whole life is based on fight”
Cancer overshadowed Stauber’s entire college experience, but she calls it the best time of her life.
“I can’t say I have enjoyed every moment, but I have enjoyed so many moments and made so many lifetime memories,” she said.
Now, as she graduates with scholar-athlete honors, her fight with cancer rages on.
“I was declared cancer free, but it came back with a vengeance,” she said, it having spread to her pancreas, lungs and ovaries.
She’s got a clean bill of health now, but she takes nothing for granted.
“My whole life is based on fight. I am not just fighting to survive – I am fighting to conquer.
“There’s so much more in store. I want so much more and I’m not going to stop until I get it.”