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Thursday, December 7, 2023

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Photographed are SDSU student recipients and donors. Photographed are SDSU student recipients and donors.

Match Gift Builds Support for SDSU Students Facing Cancer Crises

Mark Mays and his fellow donors are helping as many students as they can to realize their goals and dreams despite the challenges they face from cancer.
By Tobin Vaughn

Since its launch Sept. 25, 2018, the Wallace, Shatsky, Blackburn, Courage Through Cancer Student Success Fund has helped dozens of San Diego State University students stay on track to graduate. The fund has been so successful in assisting students diagnosed with cancer or who have a close family member with the illness, that alumnus Mark Mays (’69) has pledged a $500,000 match gift to create a $1 million endowment to support it.


Mays is a founding donor whose initial gift helped create the Courage Through Cancer Student Success Fund. He lost his wife, Karen, to breast cancer in 2013 and is familiar with the many challenges associated with the illness.


In 2021 Mays met Sara Meza Adame, an SDSU sustainability major from Chula Vista who has lived with rhabdomyosarcoma since she was a high school sophomore. Her cancer is a rare variety that develops in the body's soft tissues, usually muscles.


After getting through high school by pursuing independent studies from home while undergoing radiation and chemotherapy that sapped her strength and energy, Meza Adame completed enough credits in junior college to transfer to SDSU. With support from the Courage Through Cancer Fund, she has been able to stay in school where she earns good grades and is on track to graduate next year.


“I never knew that so much light, goodness and beauty could come out of so much hurt, darkness, and stress that comes from cancer,” Meza Adame said of the support she has received at SDSU. “These donors are life changers, change-makers, true angels from above that have changed my life and I know the lives and families of the other students who have been blessed by them.”


When she met Mays, she handed him a personal message she had composed to express her gratitude. 


“I was inspired by her and all the things she faced while remaining determined to go forward any way she could to get her degree,” Mays said. “Her note was wonderful. It made me feel good and realize that we can probably do more to help more of these kids.”


A Growing Need


Meza Adame’s note provided the impetus for Mays to donate the $500,000 for the match gift. His action has already generated a response from other alumni.


More than $250,000 in matching gifts have been donated, including a $200,000 contribution from Keith Baim (’85), a management-degree holder from the Fowler College of Business. Baim donated to honor the memory of Ed Davis, a friend from his college days at SDSU.


“Ed was my best friend,” Baim said. “To be able to pay tribute to the life he lived while helping SDSU students who are now sharing a part of his journey is immensely rewarding.”


As support for the Courage Through Cancer Student Success Fund grows, however, so does the need for its assistance. Economic Crisis Response Team (ECRT) Director Chelsea Payne ('13, '14) said in just the past financial aid cycle alone, 35 students were assessed for grant consideration from the fund.


“The need has grown significantly from what I can see (from the number of applicants),” said Payne, who has been with ECRT since 2019. “We saw hundreds of students impacted by cancer, so I can only imagine, university-wide, it is a concern for too many of our students. From an ECRT perspective, we continue to see economic instability in students, and this is exacerbated by families facing these unimaginable health challenges.”


The Long Haul


University Relations and Development Senior Director of Marketing & Communications Tammy Blackburn ('94, '01) founded the Wallace, Shatsky, Blackburn, Courage Through Cancer Student Success Fund after her own breast cancer diagnosis. What she discovered first-hand that many people fail to grasp, is that surviving cancer can be an extended, exhausting and debilitating process.


“Often, we as patients with cancer feel love and support, which can go away, but we need it every day,” Blackburn said. “For many of our students facing cancer challenges while working to earn their degrees, it’s just the beginning of a long journey.”


That’s something to which Meza Adame can relate. Her cancer has returned in different ways over the past several years along with the harsh treatments that come with it. “I don't know what is to come,” she said.


“Since being diagnosed, my physical capacity and health have never been what it was before,” said Meza Adame. “I don't think it's so much the cancer, but the treatment that probably harmed me the most long-term.


“That’s why she is grateful for the continuing support she has received since transferring to SDSU. San Diego State has changed my life for the better and given me all the resources and support from my peers, to disability support services, to generous donors and organizations that have lifted me up and really spearheaded my education here. It's something I would have never expected of such a large university.”


Mays and his fellow donors defy those expectations by helping as many students as they can realize their goals and dreams despite the challenges they face from cancer.


“This disease is omnipresent, it's everywhere, it's devastating and it's life-changing,” Mays said. “If we can ease all of those things in young people, what greater mission is there than to do that?”


You can help a high-achieving student like Sara Meza Adame achieve her goals by making a gift to the Wallace, Shatsky, Blackburn, Courage Through Cancer Student Success Fund, click here. To learn more about creating an endowment and take advantage of the $500,000 matching gift, please contact Mary Darling,