Camille Chabot, the Cal Poly student whose battle with late-stage Hodgkin’s disease sparked the viral #CamilleStrong campaign three years ago, graduated from the university on Sunday – and she did it in four years.
Her walk across the stage seemed unlikely back then. At 19, just before the start of her sophomore year, Chabot learned she had cancer and her plans for the rest of summer break and the near future came crashing down.
Instead, she began focusing on getting healthy and – despite her family’s imploring her to give herself a break – on finishing college on schedule.
“It was always one of my goals throughout chemo,” Chabot, who is now 22 and in remission, recalled during a phone interview last week. She’d just gotten her nails done – a treat after taking her last final exam that morning.
“Classes were really my way of forgetting what was going on,” she said.
It was a long, tough road. She underwent 12 rounds of chemotherapy, which sapped her energy and ruined her affinity for popsicles. The hospital gave them to her to help with the side effects of treatment, so now popsicles just remind her of being sick.
When she wasn’t sleeping or studying, Chabot spent hours watching TV and listening to country music. “I love the Ellen (DeGeneres) Show,” she said. Taylor Swift and Sam Hunt distracted her. So did Harry Potter and Netflix. Lots of Netflix.
For a long time, she couldn’t go to the beach or hop on a plane. Restaurants were out of the question. “I was constantly at Trader Joe’s picking up frozen meals,” she said.
This school year was the first she spent on campus since her initial diagnosis. A relapse and a bone marrow transplant meant several missed quarters. But Chabot hustled – enrolling in not one, but three, community colleges – and even taking an online course through Brigham Young University to keep up.
She had support – from her hometown of Dublin in the Bay Area and beyond. As word of her illness spread, so did T-shirts, bracelets and Facebook posts bearing the hashtag #CamilleStrong.
On Air Force One, President Barack Obama donned a black T-shirt with the hashtag splashed in bright pink over a heart – courtesy of John Podesta, counselor to the commander-in-chief. His daughter, Megan Rouse, is a member of Dublin’s school board and she knows Chabot’s mom.
“It’s crazy how small a world it is,” Chabot said, recalling that she thought the photo was fake when she first saw it.
All the support buoyed Chabot, whose degree is in liberal studies, during her time away from Cal Poly. So did advisers and professors back on campus.
Danielle Champney, one of Camille’s math instructors, was impressed with her student’s drive. “I couldn’t have imagined even one step further ahead – and she had this whole plan,” Champney recalled.
Champney said Chabot’s enthusiasm for school and beating cancer pushed her classmates – who celebrated her birthday even when she wasn’t there and sent her photos to help her feel included – to do their best work.
Chabot, who will return to Cal Poly in the fall to pursue a teaching credential, wants to teach first or second grade and maybe someday become a school principal. Champney thinks her former student will make an excellent teacher. “Just the way she can relate to people,” she said, “her future students are lucky to have her.”
Classes were really my way of forgetting what was going on.
But first came the graduation festivities and then a summer in Paris. Chabot was born in the City of Light and dreamed of studying at the Sorbonne like her mom. She even had an application ready. But all that got put on hold when she got sick. Now Chabot will finally get her wish – a couple of classes at the famed school to finish up a French minor.
Before that, her family converged on San Luis Obispo to watch Chabot collect her diploma, including celebrations with friends, wine tasting with relatives and even 6 a.m. bar hopping with her mom – a Cal Poly graduation tradition.
And during the ceremony she wore a cap decorated with her personal bucket list and two major items already checked off:
Beat cancer. Graduate.
“I’m so excited,” she said. “It hasn’t fully hit me.”