The Heights

Updated: December 19, 2016

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Faith and Foothill help East Palo Alto woman redefine herself and her future

A cancer survivor and caregiver to her aging parents, Ruth Talamoa is very familiar with challenges. Despite a diagnosis of multiple myeloma that has left her permanently disabled, the 33-year-old resident of East Palo Alto will not let blood cancer prevent her from earning degrees in psychology, biology and oncology.

Pictured above, Foothill counselor emeritus Victoria Taketa (left) presents a commemorative sash to Foothill graduate Talamoa at CelebrAsian, a special year-end event hosted by the students, faculty and staff of Foothill’s Asian Pacific American Network.

In addition to completing her associate degree in psychology at Foothill College this summer, Talamoa will return to Foothill this fall to complete an associate degree in biology, while concurrently enrolling in upper-division courses at CSU East Bay. She intends to pursue a career that combines these academic disciplines, and will allow her to provide meaningful support and counseling to other cancer patients and their loved ones.

“I know how it feels to have cancer, endure treatments and go to endless doctor appointments,” she says. “I want to motivate cancer patients to not give up on their goals, their futures and their lives. I want patients and their families to know that we can get through it together. I refuse to let my pain keep me from living and learning.”

She attributes her positive outlook in the face of grave illness and personal tragedy, including the death of her beloved father earlier this year, to her strong faith, strong family, and strong commitment to redefining exactly what it means to be Ruth Talamoa.

“I’m a firm believer that where you come from does not define you. It may be a part of who you are, but you can change,” she says. “Whatever challenges you’re facing–low income, disability, inequality or another struggle–you can redefine yourself, educate yourself, and believe in yourself.”

The journey to redefine herself began in 2008 when she enrolled in Foothill courses. “I was ill, disabled, and had no money,” Talamoa says. “But my Lord and Savior made a way. I felt blessed and believed that my faith would help me overcome my challenges. At Foothill, I was reminded that I also have goals, dreams and ambition. Looking back, coming to Foothill was the best decision I’ve ever made.”

Subsisting on limited funds, she couldn’t afford college textbooks. Instead, she studied from the textbooks that are placed on reserve in Foothill’s library. Her illness and family obligations may have kept her from fully participating in a college experience that included student clubs and socializing with classmates, but she received great joy by sharing presentations with Samoan Christians throughout the Bay Area.

“Throughout my time at Foothill, I’ve grown close to the faculty, staff and student assistants who work in the on-campus library. That building was my second home,” she says. “The library also provided me with a quiet environment that I needed to study successfully. Sometimes, the extreme pain I experience as a result of the removal of a tumor on my spine causes me to lose focus. The pain can be so intense that it makes it difficult to learn. Foothill’s library gave me an environment that helped me concentrate on my studies instead of concentrating on my pain."

Caring for her ill parents took Talamoa away from college in 2011, but she was able to resume her studies in 2015. “It wasn’t difficult to come back,” she says. “I always wanted to return to the campus and finish what I started. I also wanted to make my family, especially my parents, proud. My associate degree is physically just a piece of paper, but to my mom, it means so much more. She didn’t have the opportunities that I’ve had, and while she attended college as a young woman, she wasn’t able to complete her degree. Instead, she made huge sacrifices to make a life for her family here in the U.S.”

Faauuga Talamoa, Ruth’s mother, dreams that maybe one day her daughter will be a Stanford University graduate. “My mom is very supportive and wants me to succeed. She is tough on me, but that’s because she wants me to try harder and be the best that she knows that I can be.”

For Talamoa, completing her associate degree signified that she had set a goal for herself, worked hard, made sacrifices and ultimately achieved her goal. “No matter how hard things were for me, I prayed, I fought, I fasted, I trusted God, and I worked hard to do what I set out to do. I kept my eyes on the prize, and walking across the stage during the commencement ceremony to receive that degree–my degree–was one of my proudest moments. Mom was pretty proud, too."

Talamoa says that receiving encouragement from family, peers and teachers kept her motivated and focused, in spite of challenges that might make a student give up on a college education.

“The words that have encouraged me to stick with my studies are words we’ve all heard at some point,” she says. “But for me, their meaning helped sustain my dreams: Have faith in God, in yourself and in everything you do. Hard work does pay off. And, if you’re not satisfied, then do something about it.”

Another source of encouragement for Talamoa came from Foothill’s Disability Resource Center (DRC), which provides academic support, computer training, counseling, accommodations, and other services at no charge to Foothill students who have physical, communicative, learning, developmental and psychological disabilities.

“When I met with the DRC counselor, I learned that I needed more assistance to help me better understand the subjects I was studying,” she says. “Because of pain and other health issues, it took me longer to do homework and master subject matter in my courses. Without the DRC’s support services, it’s more difficult for students with disabilities to achieve their goals. These services are very beneficial and they’re coordinated by caring faculty and staff who want you to succeed. They are huge supporters, they believe in us, and help motivate us to keep going and not give up.”

She says her faith also played a profound role in her success at Foothill. “My faith gave me hope, strength, courage and wisdom to keep fighting and never give up.” She cites Philippians 4:13 and Deuteronomy 31:8 as especially important to her. “These words keep me going even when I fail. I pray for strength and energy to make it through another day, to lift me up when I fall, and to pursue my dreams.

“Foothill and my faith have helped me transform my life,” she says. “Both have played major parts in my journey and success. My future, which may always be complicated with health matters, will always be mine. My education will always be mine. And my desire to overcome challenges so that I can help others who are struggling, that, too, is mine.”

As for Foothill College itself, Talamoa is resolute, “Foothill College means a lot to me. It means success, it means hope, and it means a campus family and support. Foothill means a second chance at a better life.”

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