Student overcomes hurdles to win Hearst award

Lidya Munoz

Megan Saraceni, 26-year-old psychology major, art minor, who has continually excelled despite many obstacles she's had to face in her life, wins the William Randolph Hearst/CSU Trustee's Award for Outstanding Achievement. Photo credit: Hannah Pedraza / Photo Editor
Megan Saraceni, 26-year-old psychology major, art minor, who has continually excelled despite many obstacles she's had to face in her life, wins the William Randolph Hearst/CSU Trustee's Award for Outstanding Achievement. Photo credit: Hannah Pedraza / Photo Editor

After a cancer diagnosis, parental abandonment and mental illness, family death and poverty, many would lose hope. Instead, 26-year-old Megan Amanda Saraceni was able to rise above it all to win the William Randolph Hearst/CSU Trustee’s Award for Outstanding Achievement for 2009-10.

The William Randolph Hearst/CSU Trustee’s Award for Outstanding Achievement is given annually to students from each California State University (CSU) campus, who have overcome adversities in their lives, have performed academically well in their studies, contributed back to their community and are in need of financial aid. Each student receives a $3,000 scholarship.

This year, Saraceni, a senior majoring in psychology and an art minor, was among the 23 students honored in a Long Beach ceremony on Sept. 22 after being nominated by CSUN President Jolene Koester.

Saraceni explained that at first, she didn’t know the impact the award would have on her.

“It feels a little surreal. When I was applying for the scholarship, I didn’t understand the depth of it,” Saraceni said. “But being at the reception in Long Beach was amazing. I felt like they really cared about me and really appreciated what I was doing.”

Before getting to this place of stability, Saraceni had to overcome severe childhood and adolescent obstacles.

At six months old, Saraceni was diagnosed with neuroblastoma – a type of cancer that affects the nerve tissues and is most common in infants and toddlers. Shortly after her diagnosis, her father left home, leaving her mother to raise three children. Her 15-year-old brother and 12-year-old sister were both battling diabetes.

“They did not think I would survive, and with the ongoing treatments, the time, the money and the emotional drain, it was very difficult, and I like to think that once you have cancer you’re a survivor. It never ends,” Saraceni said.

Saraceni also had a kidney removed, a bone marrow transplant and numerous other surgeries. In high school, Saraceni had a tumor the size of a softball removed from her leg. For a whole year, Saraceni wasn’t able to walk.

Because she was battling cancer, had a mother that was raising two other children and their living situation was quite dysfunctional, a family who had gone through a similar experience, losing adaughter to cancer, became her surrogate parents.

“They were amazing. I can’t be thankful enough,” Saraceni said.

Wanting to get away from everything, Saraceni moved from Albany, N.Y. to New York City at the age of 18, just three weeks before the Sept. 11 tragedy. There she met her fiancé, Christopher Collins.

“Megan is very likable. She has a lot of honest qualities about her. She likes giving back and that’s why I love her. I’m very blessed and lucky to be in her life,” said Collins, 33.

Sept. 11 was a turning point for Saraceni and Collins.

Collins explained that New York City was seen as a city that never slept, and then suddenly it became quiet. Everything came to a standstill and that was a character builder.

While there, Saraceni began donating her time to the responders of 9/11. She also went to help out in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

In 2005, Saraceni and Collins moved to California. After attending Los Angeles Valley College, Saraceni decided to transfer to CSUN.

At CSUN, her gift of helping others grew more and kept Saraceni busy.

Saraceni has been a peer educator for JADE (Joint Advocates on Disorder Eating), advising young people about healthy eating. This is her second year as the survivorship chairwoman of Colleges Against Cancer Committee at CSUN and last year was able to raise more than $22,000 for the American Cancer Society, to fight back against cancer.

“As a cancer survivor, I love being there for other survivors, and they really are our hope and supporting them and bringing them together is amazing,” Saraceni said.

Saraceni is also the publicity director for Psi Chi, a national honor society in psychology. On weekends, she volunteers in a shelter for domestic violence called Upward Bound. She also works in the Career Center as a peer educator.

Edith Ghadimian, 28, who works with Saraceni at the Career Center, believes she can be an inspiration to others.

“It has been an inspiration to me, and I’m sure everyone else can use her story. I was very happy for her because she deserves it. She’s very pleasant to work with. She’s very caring and helpful,” said Ghadimian, a senior majoring in both biology and chemistry.

Nyla Jolly Dalferes, assistant director at the Career Center, has known Saraceni for more than a year. Dalferes admires her strength and openness.

“First of all, I’m happy and proud of her and I think she’s very deserving. She’s one of the most ambitious people I know with the biggest heart in the world,” Dalferes said.

“I hope the future brings graduate school. I hope the future brings a family. My fiancé and I have been together for seven-and-a-half years, so we’re hoping someday soon to make it legal and start our own family,” Saraceni said.

Saraceni also hopes to start her own therapeutic center, Heal by Heart, to help anyone who may be facing a difficult time.

For Saraceni, people live in such a busy world of work and school that they don’t take the time to recognize themselves. When someone else does the recognizing for something you did, it blows you away, she said.