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Tuesday, September 26, 2023

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SDSU's Diego Perez SDSU's Diego Perez

Help in a Crisis

When an SDSU student's four-year-old brother developed leukemia, Courage Through Cancer stepped in to relieve some of the stress.
By SDSU News Team

A few days after his 21st birthday in February, San Diego State University third-year student Diego Perez got a call from his father in Oakland. His youngest brother, Jesse, who was four at the time, was hospitalized.

“They thought it was just a flu or some type of infection,” Perez recalled. “Turns out, it was leukemia.”

The news broke Perez’s heart. The siblings are close and Jesse looks up to his big brother, Diego, the first in their family to attend college.

He feels a self-imposed pressure to set a good example. “My younger brothers are pretty much who I go to school for,” Perez said, but Jesse’s health crisis provoked a rescue response.

His immediate thought was to postpone his studies, move back home, and help his dad, an instrumentation technician at a Bay Area petroleum company facility, pay Jesse’s medical bills. His father axed that idea, insisting Perez remain at SDSU and finish the semester.

But Perez, a chemistry major who hopes to become a radiologist, had trouble focusing on his studies. His brother’s illness weighed too heavily on his mind.

“Jesse was always such a happy kid,” he said. “It’s just sad to see a four-year-old get leukemia.”

Hoping to avert academic disaster, Perez confided in his professors. Fortunately, he said, they were all understanding.

The campus responds

Some gave him more leeway with deadlines while others allowed a missed score or two on assignments. “The professors here have been extremely helpful and for that I can’t thank them enough,” Perez emphasized.

As accommodating as they were, however, what the professors and few other people realized were the additional factors contributing to his malaise. In addition to a recent diagnosis of dyslexia, Perez had also broken both hands in a bicycle accident, preventing him from participating over the past year in the Men’s Crew Club, the activity in his SDSU experience from which he gains the most joy.

Working two jobs to make ends meet and sometimes skipping meals to get from class to work on time and vice versa, his exhausting pace combined with the enormity of his little brother’s battle began to exact a greater toll. “I was pretty much at an all-time low,” Perez confessed.

He consulted SDSU’s Economic Crisis Response Team (ECRT) and visited the Office of Financial Aid and Scholarships where he shared the story of how his brother’s illness was affecting him. That’s when he learned about the Wallace Shatsky Blackburn Courage Through Cancer Fund.

SDSU Director of Development Technology Tammy Blackburn (’94, ’01), a cancer survivor, established the fund at the beginning of the 2018-19 academic year to aid students affected by the disease. Since that time, the fund was endowed, raised more than $150,000, and provided assistance to Perez and six other students whose studies were negatively impacted by cancer either through their own diagnoses or the struggle of a loved one fighting the illness.

“I had never heard of Courage Through Cancer, but I hoped it would work out for me,” Perez said of the fund. “It did and I am so very grateful.”

Graduation boost

Perez said he received assistance with living expenses, including food. The fund, he said, “is taking the stress off of having to work more so I can focus on studies more” and graduate in 2020.

“Diego is exactly the type of student this fund was created to help,” said Blackburn. “Although he doesn’t have cancer, he is a high-achieving student whose education was threatened nonetheless by the diagnosis of a loved one – he was ready to leave school.

“All he needed was a small boost to keep him on course to graduate. We are able to provide that thanks to generous support from alumni and other donors who understand what the Courage Through Cancer Fund seeks to accomplish.”

Goals for the next academic year will be to grow the fund and expand its reach. SDSU Financial Aid and Scholarships Director Rose Pasenelli said raising awareness of the fund will be an area of emphasis for her office.

In addition to working with the ECRT, she believes SDSU faculty can help identify students who might benefit from the fund.  She said professors are often the first to notice when a student is in crisis.

“They are realizing when students are acting different, not showing up, and when they do show up they are just not engaged,” Pasenelli explained. “So maybe we try to do a campaign to raise awareness among the faculty.”

Back on track

Perez feels fortunate to have been assisted by the Courage Through Cancer Fund. “It has been a weird and rough year for me, but I’m getting through it,” he said. “I’m passing my classes and that’s the bottom line.”

After taking his last final in May and happy to be back on track to complete his chemistry degree, he hit the road to pay a surprise visit to his dad and Jesse, who recently celebrated his fifth birthday.  He returned to campus for summer courses with a new sense of dedication and restored resolve.

“Jesse has been fighting and he has been my biggest inspiration,” Perez said. “If he can battle leukemia at four and five years old, I can pass O-chem, you know?”

To help an SDSU student facing a cancer crisis, visit the Wallace Shatsky Courage Through Cancer fund here.