‘Just push forward’: Upcoming master’s degree grad and cancer survivor shares story
Shirley Biala Balmeo will be one of more than 250 students who will receive their diplomas during the 2022 Fanuchånan Commencement at the University of Guam on Dec. 18.
In a sea of graduates wearing caps and gowns on Sunday, Balmeo will not stand out conspicuously from the others who will be receiving their diplomas.
But if you hear her story, the day she receives a second Master of Education degree will be a testimony of her personal triumph and not just her academic feat.
The mother, middle school teacher for almost two decades, and graduate student was quietly battling breast cancer mid-life as she carried on with meeting the academic requirements for her master’s degree the past several months.
And it was a battle she did not expect.
At the beginning of this semester, Balmeo went for a routine mammogram, which is something she had done just as a matter of procedure. This year, when the scheduling to get a routine mammogram appeared to be more complex than necessary, she thought about being screened another time, but her husband Manny Balmeo persuaded her to just get it done.
It turned out to be the one mammogram screening that would send her into a maze of more health screenings and tests and medical appointments and ultimately surgery – all while completing her homework and projects.
She is going to earn a Master of Education with specialization in reading, to become more focused on classroom literacy and intervention. Her first graduate degree focused more on educational leadership.
With her health crisis, she decided to carry on with her graduate studies.
Balmeo compared her view to running a marathon: She’s past the point of turning back and is so close to the finish line, so she might as well finish what she started.
But as sure as she was about her decision, it also left her feeling vulnerable – so much so that at one point she felt, she had lost control of all her academic responsibilities for her studies and wondered if all her major assignments were submitted on time – while she was undergoing treatment off island.
It was during this time that she finally messaged one of her professors and shared with her that she was going through breast cancer surgery and post-surgery care. Prior to that point, none of her professors knew about her health crisis.
“There was one instance when I was struggling with an assignment, and I wanted to make sure that I had submitted it and I don't know if it was the time difference or whatnot, but I had to just let my professor know that I was off island and why,” she said.
She remembered Dr. Matilda Naputi Rivera, assistant professor in the UOG School of Education, as among the educators who supported her as soon as Rivera found out.
Shirley Balmeo got through the demands from home as a mom and wife, her academic requirements, her obligation to her students, and attending to her health care by approaching the seemingly daunting tasks piecemeal: She took steps one day at a time, one week at a time, one medical appointment at a time, and one assignment at a time.
Eventually, all her assignments and work required were submitted.
"It helps to have a circle of support from family members, educators and others, including the cancer support groups in Guam," she said. For current and future students who might hit rough spots while pursuing degrees, here’s a piece of advice based on her experience.
“When you get through a situation that seems daunting, and there seems no way out, take it a day at a time and get support. You don’t need to do it alone,” she said.
“Just push forward; there's always tomorrow. I guess what I'm trying to say is there's always hope that you’ll get through it – even if it's just talking to your professors and letting them know what you're going through, and you know, I was pretty lucky that Dr. Rivera was supportive.”
Dr. Rivera said her team is dedicated and committed to providing students with quality education.
“We sincerely want our students to succeed and achieve their goals in life,” Rivera said.
“Shirley has shown that despite adversity, with faith, hope, and the will to succeed, one can achieve great things.”