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Tuesday, October 3, 2023

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Courtesy photo from Imelda Hernandez-Villa. Courtesy photo from Imelda Hernandez-Villa.

Imelda’s Story: Overcoming Life’s Setbacks to Achieve a Childhood Dream

In a life guided by adversity, Imelda Hernandez-Villa has stayed true to her core goals despite the hurdles of a health crisis.
By Nandi Maunder

When faced with setbacks out of her control, including breast cancer, Imelda Hernandez-Villa has built herself back up stronger every time. In another symbol of victory, she will receive her San Diego State University degree in the spring.


“I was afraid, but I’m very like, OK, I’m just going to go for it,” she said, recalling her cross-border commute from Tijuana to her high school in San Diego. Though she was a U.S. citizen, young Imelda spent the majority of her time in Mexico, learning English as a teenager. With the support of her high school counselor who stressed the importance of education, Imelda began to imagine her life after high school. 


“I was very involved in MeCHA,” which is still a very active organization on campus dedicated to Chicanx students. “We kept coming to SDSU and I just fell in love with the school. That was always my dream.” 


But Imelda could not attend SDSU or even community college due to cost and had to work to support herself. However, she still found herself on SDSU’s campus, not as a student, but as an employee for Aztec Shops, where she worked for almost 25 years. At that time she got married and had a daughter, balancing her time as a full-time employee, wife, and mother. Hernandez-Villa still pushed herself to take one or two courses a semester in community college and graduated from Cuyamaca College in 2021 before transferring to SDSU. 


“I know I want to be here, I know it’s not going to be in a couple of years. I know it’s going to take a long time, but I know I’m going to be in this school,” she said.


The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic forced changes in her life. Work was no longer an option. With the support of her husband and daughter, she became a full-time student during the lockdown in pursuit of a degree in English literature as well as a certificate in children’s literature. Her SDSU dream, two decades in the making, was within reach.


But in October of 2021 she was forced to pivot again, this time after feeling a lump, and was diagnosed with Stage I breast cancer. 


Hernandez-Villa was one of an “estimated 287,500 new cases of invasive breast cancer” in the U.S. last year, according to the National Breast Cancer Foundation. 


After finally arriving at SDSU like she had planned decades previously, all of Hernandez-Villa’s energy and attention had to be given to her health, though she did still manage to take one class per semester. 


For almost a year, Hernandez-Villa underwent multiple surgeries, chemotherapy, as well as the physical and emotional toll of treatment. Family and friends who wanted to send their well-wishes from afar during the pandemic suddenly did not know how to comfort her or even approach the subject at all. Cut off from in-person interactions, she joined an online support group, open to patients at all stages of treatment. 


“It's comforting to know you are not alone and you are not the only person this happened to," Hernandez-Villa. “As much as somebody says I know how you feel, and I appreciate it, but no they don’t. Thank God that they don’t.”


In between her family, appointments, and attending class, Hernandez-Villa had moments of overwhelming restlessness and fear: “All I could think was am I going to die?”


A year after her initial diagnosis, Imelda is now cancer free and joins 3.8 million breast cancer survivors in the U.S. But her experience with the disease has stayed with her, and the people and activities she found solace in are still integral parts of her life. Her mental escape from her anxieties was in children’s books because her “escape is reading,” leading to a certificate on the subject now that she has returned to SDSU. 


Time and again Hernandez-Villa’s dedication to her goals has served and preserved her original dream of graduating from SDSU, which she will accomplish spring 2023, opening up new doors for her life after graduation.