SAN DIEGO, Calif. — For the first time since the pandemic, graduates are walking across a stage to receive their diploma, hearing their names in-person instead of through a screen.
But even before facing a global pandemic, some students weren't sure this day would ever come.
"For lack of a better word: surreal. I just can’t believe it," said Cameron McCullough, a biology major at San Diego State University (SDSU).
A few months into his freshman year, his mom was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma, metastatic to the bone. Eventually, they couldn’t pay the mounting bills for his education.
“The school didn’t know anything. I received a notice on my door saying three-day pay or quit," McCullough recalled.
At the same time, an SDSU faculty member was getting treated for her own cancer diagnosis.
"I was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer in 2017, and after a year of rigorous treatment, I was deemed no-evidence of disease," said Tammy Blackburn.
A star basketball player for San Diego State, Blackburn found a permanent home at the college when she became a faculty member 23 years ago.
“I was only in remission until I wasn’t. Six months later, I received a diagnosis of stage 4 metastatic breast cancer," said Blackburn. "As I was in treatment, there was a young gal that walked into an infusion one day. For whatever reason, my eyes locked and as I was driving home that afternoon, I kept thinking about, 'Why her? She’s so young?'”
Between the PET scans, treatments, and hospital visits, Blackburn set her mind on another purpose.
“This student fund is meant to keep students in school. The goal is for them to graduate and not allow a personal diagnosis of cancer, or that of a loved one, to take them away from their dreams," Blackburn said.
With help from the administration, she created the Wallace Shatsky Blackburn Courage Through Cancer Fund, named for the UC San Diego Health doctors who saved her life.
“Those initial donations started to come in, and suddenly I started to see the vision: getting Cameron to his junior year, getting him to his senior year, making sure he had books, housing, meals, tuition, everything paid for," said Blackburn.
She visited McCullough's home to let them know he was the fund's first recipient. From that day on, he not only had financial support but a community.
“Tammy is the person I can text late at night or right before an exam," said McCullough. "My backbone."
“And I’ll be standing at the opposite end of the stage when his name is announced. It’s not something you can explain how you feel," said Blackburn. "I just wanted, wanted him to finish and earn his degree. He deserves that.”
With celebratory air hugs and fist bumps, the moment may have looked a little different but felt exactly as they’d imagined.
"I don’t feel good on most days. But when I have something there to grasp, and it’s full of goodness, and it's full of being able to help others – that’s what you grab onto," said Blackburn.
As McCullough goes on to research stem cell cancer treatments, Blackburn will continue helping students reach a finish line they were always destined to cross.
With the Courage Through Cancer fund, they've been able to help more than 20 students at SDSU.
"When cancer calls at San Diego State, San Diego State has an answer," said Blackburn. "They have somewhere to turn. They have somewhere to look to when cancer takes all that away.”