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Maria Adeoti, Department of Psychology

Surviving cancer while earning a college degree

Maria Adeoti

When Maria Adeoti walks across the stage to receive her degree in psychology this month, she will be celebrating college graduation and a second chance at life.

At age 27, Adeoti is a cancer survivor.

In 2007, during her third year as a CLASS student, she was diagnosed with stage 2 cutaneous t-cell lymphoma, a type of cancer that usually affects people more than twice her age.

In spite of the cancer diagnosis, weeks of chemotherapy, months of total body radiation, and, ultimately, a bone marrow transplant, Adeoti continued her education. She varied her course load – sometimes taking classes full time, sometimes part time – and sometimes she took online classes.

Her treatments and schedule changes contributed to feelings of isolation from her classmates and the typical college experience.

“I had friends who stopped coming around me because they didn’t know what to say or how to act in my presence,” recalled Adeoti. “In hindsight, I can understand why… it is hard to see someone you know being so sick.”

Now, armed with a degree, she is building a non-profit organization to support other twenty-somethings as they wage their own battles against cancer.

“I want young adults with cancer to know that the disease does not have to stop their lives,” Adeoti said.

Adeoti’s medical care was intensive and time consuming and she had to reach out for extra support to help her earn her degree.

“One of my instructors, Dr. Lynda Villanueva, was always very supportive,” she said. “If I had one of Dr. Villanueva’s courses, she would make allowances for me so that I could complete my work in a way that didn’t interfere with my hospitalizations or treatment schedule.”

Dr. Villanueva, a lecturer in the Department of Psychology, said every student faces obstacles but not all have the determination to overcome them that Adeoti has.

“I never thought twice about working with Maria to accommodate her needs,” said Dr. Villanueva. “My job is to facilitate learning in an equitable manner. Maria needed to be treated according to her special needs. She embraced every challenge as yet another opportunity to prove to the world she has what it takes to succeed.”

Until 2005, Adeoti had no serious health concerns. But during that year, she began having severe skin irritation. Physicians initially told her it was psoriasis that may have been aggravated by the stress of juggling a full-time class load and a full-time job.

The treatments prescribed, however, did not cure the skin problems. Painful lesions spread from her head to her feet and forced her to temporarily stop taking classes and working.

She lived with the pain for a year before seeing a different dermatologist in 2007. That physician tested her for cancer. When the diagnosis came back, she immediately began cancer treatment. 

In 2009, she  had a bone marrow transplant.  Although successful, she developed a transplant-related disease that prevented her from returning to campus.

But she didn’t let it stop her from resuming her studies. Adeoti took classes online to keep making progress toward her degree.

She returned to school full time in Fall 2011, and has worked hard ever since to complete her degree.

“Maria is an exceptional young lady who exemplifies the strongest commitment I have seen in pursuing educational goals,” said Dr. Villanueva. “Despite setbacks in her health, she was always energetic and enthusiastic about course material. While in my class, she demonstrated a willingness to engage in class discussions as well as seek knowledge about the field of psychology, including topics that are not covered in my lectures or in the text. It is this desire to learn that I believe only a few students of her caliber achieve.”

Adeoti post-graduation plans include enrolling in nursing school. She wants to combine her interest – and experience – in healthcare with her degree in psychology to become a nurse in a psychiatric hospital. This is in addition to building her non-profit organization, which is a project that is close to her heart.

“I’m going to go into hospitals and host events to help cancer patients enjoy themselves with their family and friends because the experience can be isolating,” she said. “Working with them, as well as with organizations like Be the Match, is my motivation. They are my passion.”

- By Monica Byars