Where Nariah is from, higher education is the exception, not the expectation.
“There’s not much there,” she says of her hometown. “Very few people go to college.”
But Nariah’s family has always stressed the importance of education, and she’s had big plans ever since she was ten.
“I’m the oldest of three,” Nariah says. “My youngest sister, when she was three years old, was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia.”
Acute lymphoblastic leukemia is the most common type of childhood cancer. Sudden and fast-growing, it affects the body’s white blood cells, making them less effective in fighting infections and protecting against disease.
Nariah was just seven when her sister Aleeya left with their mother for treatment at St. Jude. The pair stayed in lodging near the Tennessee hospital as part of Aleeya’s care plan for the better part of three years.
“It was just odd, my mom and my sister being away from me,” Nariah says. “Because we were considerably young.”
Nariah didn’t get to visit Aleeya and her mom often since they were more than a six-hour drive apart—and when she did, she was afraid she’d find a scared, sad little girl at the end of each trip.
But her sister’s cheerfulness never faltered.
“Aleeya was really excited to be around the hospital because they made it a positive environment for her,” Nariah says. “I think that has everything to do with her experience and the fact that it is a positive experience, although it’s not a positive situation.”
That positive experience had a profound impact on Nariah, too—so much so that by the time Aleeya was in remission, Nariah already knew what shape she wanted her future to take. She would become a pediatric oncologist, helping children like her sister in the fight against cancer.
“It was actually her final day of chemo,” Nariah says. “It was bittersweet, which seems odd because it shouldn’t be. It should be a very happy moment, but we had to say bye to the hospital and the team. It’s kind of odd that you develop such a strong bond with people who care for you when you have a disease. That’s when I knew: This matters, this makes sense, this—this is real.”
Once Nariah’s dream was set, she needed to figure out how to pay for it.
She knew a four-year university education would be difficult to afford. So, as other students were narrowing down their options and stressing out over applications their senior year, Nariah was planning to start out at her local community college.
“There really wasn’t another option financially,” she says.
Nariah and her family were driving to dinner to celebrate her 18th birthday that October when she first spotted the huge University of Illinois billboard: “Four Years. Free Tuition. That’s Illinois Commitment.” The advertisement, it turned out, was promoting a new financial aid program—one for which Nariah was eligible.
Nariah applied to Illinois while there was still leftover birthday cake in the house, hoping the whole thing wasn’t too good to be true.
“I knew that I qualified for it,” Nariah says. “But it was like this uneasy tension, not knowing if I was actually going to be able to receive it.”
She was admitted to Illinois first, an achievement in and of itself. But Nariah’s celebration didn’t begin until she received her financial aid notification and, with it, the confirmation she had been waiting for—that she would be attending the university tuition-free.
“I remember the exact moment,” Nariah says. “I was in my Spanish class, and I just immediately called my mom. I was ecstatic.”
She was also in a state of shock.
“I don’t know what I expected,” she says. “But to be able to afford to come here was not what I expected.”
Now midway through her freshman year at Illinois, Nariah is making the most of her college experience.
“I love it here. There’s a nook and cranny for everyone. I’ve met so many great people, the faculty’s great, and there are always people to help you,” she says. “There’s just a lot of help and guidance and acceptance here.”
Nariah is following a Pre-Med plan through her major, Biology, on her way to taking the MCAT and applying to medical schools. The classes may be strenuous, but Nariah is driven and directing her full attention toward her education.
“I’m able to achieve a high-quality degree without having to have that financial weight on my shoulders. I get to just focus on being here and my experience in my academics,” she says. “It also takes a big weight off my family, because I think they would feel almost guilty if I couldn’t get the education I wanted.”
Instead, Nariah’s family has the privilege of watching her attain her long-held dream. They’re proud of everything she’s accomplished and ready to support her as she continues her journey—especially Aleeya.
“She’s really excited for me,” says Nariah, “And really happy that she could take her experience and turn it into something positive for me and for our whole family. She’s going on thirteen now, so she’s fully aware—she’s not three years old anymore. So it’s just cool to see her growing up and actually seeing the effect it all takes.”
Now, Nariah hopes to return the favor. Just as Aleeya helped Nariah discover her life’s purpose, Nariah is helping Aleeya learn there’s no limit to what her future could hold.
“I want to have inspired my sisters, because I’m the first person in our immediate family to go to college,” Nariah says. “So I want to be able to let them know that this is possible. Just put the work in, and it’ll come to you.”