The many recent stories in the media about college access and the challenges faced by first- generation college students have inspired me to share my own experience with Berkeleyside readers.

I’m one of those students. I came to the United States from Mexico when I was 5, was raised in Berkeley, attended Malcolm X Elementary and graduated from Berkeley High School in 2011. Neither my mother nor my stepfather went to college, but for as long as I can remember the family expectation was that my younger brother and I would earn a college degree.

Spending the early years of my youth with four family members in a cramped studio apartment and seeing what my parents sacrificed for us helped me set my own goals to create a better future for myself. My hard work during high school paid off. I was accepted into San Francisco State and I earned a scholarship from the Berkeley Community Fund. I felt nervous, but ready. My first semester was great. I enjoyed my classes and the challenge.

Life changed in early January 2012. I knew my state-sponsored health insurance would be terminated when I turned 19 later that month, so I was proactive and got a physical. I wanted to return to dancing with a dance company that I was a part of previously. I had stopped a few years earlier because it tired me out too much. I wanted to try again.

A lump I had above my collarbone my whole senior year in high school turned out to be thyroid cancer. I had my first surgery the day before my 19th birthday. The doctors insisted I take the semester off. But I refused. I reduced my class load from five classes to two classes.

The only semester I did take off was Fall of 2013, when I had another, more severe, surgery. The cancer had damaged my vocal chords. They were paralyzed, and I could not speak. Eventually I got a vocal chord implant and my voice has been a lot better ever since.

I made it through these four difficult years with the support of my family and friends—and the Berkeley Community Fund (BCF). When I had to take a semester off, the BCF staff stayed in touch with me regularly to see how I was doing. They also held on to my scholarship funds so I could use them for my last semester of college. That was a huge relief and allowed me to focus on getting better and learning.

Another wonderful support was my BCF mentor, Carol Lashof. We talked regularly and met for lunch occasionally, and she would advise me about class selections or other school-related topics. After I was diagnosed with cancer, we began to connect more often and on a whole different level. Having someone to talk to about my worries was really helpful. Sometimes it is easier to talk to someone who doesn’t really know you as well as your family. Perhaps you don’t feel judged, or feel emotionally responsible for their reaction. It was great to have someone else to talk to whom I trusted.

Today, I am largely recovered, although I still have challenging days. Sometimes my body gets achy when the medication doesn’t work. On those days I have to go home, I feel so sick. But fortunately, that doesn’t happen too often.

I have a full class load and work 24 hours a week at REALM Charter School in Berkeley. I am on pace to graduate in Spring 2016 with a degree in Child and Adolescent Development. I plan on getting a teaching certificate and Master’s degree from Cal and then teach either language arts or social studies at a middle school or high school in the Bay Area. Someday, I want to be a curriculum consultant and analyst. I have realized that going into the education field is the best fit for my passion to work for social justice.

The last few years have been challenging, but also fulfilling and happy. I am proud of myself for staying positive and on course despite financial challenges and cancer. I coped by staying busy and staying in school as much as I could. Sometimes I did feel lonely and misunderstood. Not very many young adults around me have experienced cancer, and so people did not understand why I was still so happy and busy. Yeah, I had cancer, there were times when my body really hurt and I felt sick, but by going to school and working I was escaping from the scary part of having cancer by doing the things I love. I am hopeful and can’t wait for my next phase of life!

To learn more about the BCF’s High Hopes Scholarship Program, visit You can help support other students like Ilse by attending the BCF’s Annual Dinner on Thursday, Oct. 8, at Hs Lordships. At this year’s dinner Archana Horsting, co-founder and executive director of Kala Art Institute, will be honored with the Benjamin Ide Wheeler Medal.

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Ilse Rueda is a 2011 Berkeley High School graduate and currently a student at San Francisco State on pace to graduate in Spring 2016.
Ilse Rueda is a 2011 Berkeley High School graduate and currently a student at San Francisco State on pace to graduate in Spring 2016.

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