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Sunday, May 16, 2021

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Daniel Piel ('20) Daniel Piel ('20)
 


“Every Day Seems a Little Happier”

COVID-19 and his father's cancer diagnosis threatened Daniel Piel’s education and career goals. Then came the news that changed his life.
By Tobin Vaughn
 

“It has taken a lot off of their shoulders. Every day just seems a little happier and a little more manageable.”

Daniel Piel’s parents hadn’t wanted him to know. He was working hard to wrap up his undergraduate anthropology course work and graduate in May after having been accepted into a master’s program at San Diego State University to study the environmental impact of humans as evidenced through archaeological records.

It was enough that COVID-19 had upended his summer plans to explore an ancient Roman site in Italy with a professor, but then Piel learned the pandemic had also caused his parents to lose their jobs. They had feared he would worry and become distracted from his studies.

But the bad news got worse: right around the end of the spring semester his dad was diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer. It was a lot for the Piel to process.

“I didn’t know if we were going to lose him. I didn’t know how long it had been going on,” said Piel. “It was soul crushing, but I had to push through it and had to stay positive.”

Piel lives with his parents, as he did as an undergrad, helping out around the house and pitching in to pay the bills working as a sailing instructor at the Mission Bay Aquatic Center. He was prepared, if necessary, to put school on hold and to set aside his goal of earning a Ph.D. and becoming a college professor.

“I knew that if I were to take a year or something off I might not actually get back in again,” Piel said, “and I was really worried about that.”

Courage through cancer

Piel’s fears were well founded. SDSU financial aid administrators confirm that many students who place their educations on hold will frequently fail to complete their degrees.

When they learned of Piel’s circumstances, they immediately identified him as a candidate for assistance from SDSU’s Wallace, Shatsky, Blackburn, Courage Through Cancer Fund. The fund helps students whose studies are negatively impacted by cancer either through their own diagnoses or the struggle of a loved one fighting the illness.

Since its inception at the beginning of the 2018-19 academic year, the fund was endowed and has raised more than $270,000.  It has helped 20 SDSU students stay on track to graduate including, most recently, Daniel Piel.

“Daniel is an outstanding student who just needed a boost to overcome some serious challenges he and his family are facing and, fortunately, we have been able to help,” said Tammy Blackburn (’94, ’01), who is living with Stage IV breast cancer and is the director of marketing and communications for University Relations and Development. She said Piel has received support for tuition, fees, books, a laptop computer, gas cards and food cards.

“I never would have imagined that this could have happened at all,” said a grateful Piel of the support he has received. “It’s really life-changing, so I want to say thank you to everyone involved.”

End-of-year campaign

2020 end-of-year campaign has been established with a goal of raising $100,000 for the Wallace, Shatsky, Blackburn, Courage Through Cancer Fund. Already, SDSU alumni and other donors are coming through.

Mark Mays (’69), who provided one of the original gifts to launch the fund, has pledged to match contributions to the campaign up to $15,000. Having lost his wife, Karen, to breast cancer in 2013, Mays knows too well the obstacles faced by cancer patients and their loved ones.

“I am sensitive to some of the enormous challenges of someone with a cancer diagnosis,” he said. “They go up exponentially aside from the rigors and challenges of a regular student getting through school. It makes me feel good to be able to help.”

As a cancer survivor, Sarita Flaming (’91) understands the fear and uncertainty that accompany a cancer diagnosis. “Your life comes to a screeching halt,” she said. “Whether it’s financial, emotional, family – it all stops.”

She is sensitive to risks students like Piel face by being forced to put their studies on pause. “Allowing them to be able to stay in school with their friends learning and taking steps toward their future is important and I think it’s critical we help provide that for them,” she said.

Flaming has contributed generously to the Courage Through Cancer Fund over the past year, including a gift to the end-of-year campaign. Her passion for supporting the fund inspired her in-laws, Art ('60) and Gwen Flaming, to contribute a $20,000 match gift to the campaign.

Thanks a thousand times

Piel’s father had surgery and the family is awaiting test results to determine his prognosis. He is still concerned for his dad, but Piel said the support he received from the Courage Through Cancer Student Success Fund has helped ease a tremendous burden for him and his family.

“It has taken a lot off of their shoulders,” he said. “Every day just seems a little happier and a little more manageable.

“My mom wanted to say thank you a thousand times to everybody involved and so does my dad. I do, too.”