COLUMBIA — Family and friends roared in celebration as Pascale White walked across the stage at Columbia College and received her diploma on Saturday afternoon.
Pascale was one of 500 people to graduate on Saturday, and more than 1,500 people filled the Southwell Athletic Complex to watch. With a smile, White accepted the diploma and shook hands with David Roebuck, the dean of the School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences.
White's journey to graduation was not an easy one. She is a two-time survivor of leukemia and was first diagnosed as a toddler in 1995.
"I get teared up about it, thinking back on the struggles I have gone through and just the major accomplishment this is for me," she said. "But the struggles that I’ve gone through to get here — it’s unreal to me."
After her first diagnosis, White underwent three years of intense chemotherapy for acute lymphoblastic leukemia. In 1998, her cancer went into remission, but she relapsed at age 6 in 2000.
White doesn't remember a lot from her early childhood schooling, and she was absent for most of first and second grade because of her illness.
"I don’t remember much. I remember going to the first day of first grade, but that's about it," she said.
White attended Columbia Catholic School for third and fourth grade and was later homeschooled. She graduated from Rock Bridge High School and attended Moberly Area Community College before transferring to Columbia College.
Her struggle did not dampen her determination, though. White majored in general studies with minors in psychology and business and works for her parents, who are chiropractors. She hopes to someday own her own business.
White picked Columbia College because it catered to her scholastic needs.
"Columbia College was the small atmosphere that I really liked," she said. "Being able to talk with the teachers, and the teachers actually caring about whether you showed up to class or not, made me feel like I needed to care too."
The intense chemotherapy and cancer treatments have had lasting effects on her ability to study, and reading is one of her biggest challenges.
"Typically, a normal person can read a textbook two to three times and know the material. Well, I’ll have to read a paragraph to myself six to seven times, and I still won’t understand what I was reading, but I’ve gotten a lot better," she said.
She started using audio textbooks to help her study.
"I would get my textbooks on audio, and I would read along with it and hear at the same time to at least be able to comprehend it," she said.
When some of her textbooks weren't available as audiobooks, she realized the importance of asking her professors for help.
"I knew the teachers were willing to help the students, but you also have to have the courage to ask, and that’s in any situation. Even if you’re struggling in the hospital, don’t be afraid to ask for support," she said. "If you need money, don’t be afraid to ask, because there is always someone out there willing to help."
To make the most of her college experience, White got involved in the college's Student Government Association. She also worked two jobs and devoted time to the volunteer organization she and her family founded, Pascale’s Pals.
Pascale's Pals started as a bake sale to help provide televisions in pediatric hospital rooms. White's mother spearheaded the organization, which now specializes in helping children and families staying at the Women and Children's Hospital.
The organization is best known for its "patient wish baskets," which volunteers assemble in collaboration with the social workers at the hospital. The personalized baskets, which cost about $1,000, include toys, games, music, puzzles and electronics such as a laptop or iPod.
"When you’re a parent, seeing your child suffer, and another child comes in that’s wanting to help you who has also been in the same situation, it's a very empowering and overwhelming feeling," White said of her work with Pascale's Pals. "Being able to impact them that heavily and know that they’re not alone is something that’s very important to us."
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