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How I Went From Chicago's South Side to Chemotherapy to College

After being diagnosed with nasopharyngeal carcinoma at age 12, school became my outlet.

What does it take to close the achievement gap? Last month the principal of Chicago's Gary Comer College Prep wrote about how 100 percent of the school's seniors earned acceptances to four-year universities. This is the last of four student stories.

Taniesha Lynette Broadway is the name on my birth certificate. My family calls me "Tonka". The mirror calls me beautiful. Triumph calls me strong. Hopeless calls me faithful. Ego calls me humble. Fear calls me courageous, and cancer calls me a survivor. So I am not just simply Taniesha Lynette Broadway—I am beautiful, strong, faithful, courageous, humble, and a survivor. It's nice to meet you.

I'm from the South Side of Chicago and I'm a senior at Gary Comer College Prep. I'm heading to the University of Wisconsin at Madison for college in the fall. But getting to this point has been a long road. During a check-up my doctor noticed that my lymph nodes were swollen and decided to do surgery to drain them. During the surgery the doctors discovered a cancerous mass. I was diagnosed with nasopharyngeal carcinoma—a cancer that's mainly found in middle-aged adults. I was 12-years-old.

The doctors treated me with adult dosages of chemotherapy and radiation and I spent almost an entire year at the University of Chicago's hospital. I stopped talking to many of my friends and sometimes I didn't want my family to visit. Instead of seeing me lying in a hospital bed, I wanted them to remember me as an energetic child. I also didn't want them to see the change in my appearance. I lost all of my hair and I couldn't eat or drink because it hurt to do so. I dropped down to only 96 pounds and had to have a g-tube implanted in my stomach.

But then came the day I was declared a cancer survivor and allowed to head home. Because I was so weak at first I had to be home schooled. The kitchen became my classroom and the machine pole that held the liquids and food that fed my IV and G-tube accompanied me to every lesson. By the end of eighth grade I started going to school again. I tried to appear as normal as possible, but my classmates could see I had changed. I could no longer drink soda, eat any dry foods without water, or engage in energetic activities. As a result, doing well in school became an outlet.

At the same time, I became more aware that the Chicago I knew and loved had many problems: a high crime rate, poverty, segregated communities, and struggling schools. When I headed to Chicago’s notorious Fenger High School as a freshman in the fall of 2008, I experienced the problems of public schools first hand. At Fenger, discipline was not stressed and teachers did not encourage students to excel. Even the worst behaved kids could see that we weren't being given the education that students attending the city’s prestigious selective enrollment high schools, Whitney Young and Gwendolyn Brooks, were getting. Then in September 2009, the shocking beating death of my classmate, 16-year-old Fenger sophomore Derrion Albert happened.

The video of Derrion’s murder went viral and the story was in the national news nonstop. I didn't even know Derrion but the tragedy affected me. I saw the media waiting hungrily outside my school, waiting to see what the Fenger kids would do next. It allowed me to see that attention was only paid to things when the violence was shocking enough. And that same violence that took Derrion’s life could just as easily take mine. Had I survived cancer just to be killed by student-on-student violence? My mother pulled me out of Fenger and enrolled me at GCCP.

GCCP’s only seven miles from Fenger but it's a completely different environment. There’s a culture of discipline and productivity and teachers are focused on the students attending college. Although I was never a student who misbehaved at Fenger, my transition to GCCP wasn’t easy. Initially I had a rebellious view towards the school’s rules, but, after getting a few demerits and a few detentions I began to understand that following rules is not a restraint, but is actually a structure to ensure success. I also remembered all the time I spent in my hospital bed, eager to learn about the outside world. I’m lucky to be alive and I knew I needed to make the most of the chance to be at a school that expected all students to go to college.

As a result, I've received a full four-year tuition scholarship to the poetry program at Madison. I am so excited to study with other creative minds that share my passion for poetry. I also plan to major in legal studies and be a lawyer.

In the future, when you see my name, Taniesha Lynette Broadway, it will have the letters "JD"—juris doctor—after it. You’ll see my name published in a poetry anthology, too. I believe I was given a second chance at life. Now, thanks to my education at GCCP, I have the drive and skills to achieve my dreams.

Photo courtesy of Gary Comer College Prep

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