Today@Sam Article

Student Battles Cancer While Fulfilling Passion Of Becoming A Teacher

May 12, 2017
SHSU Media Contact: Lane Fortenberry

During Sam Houston State University’s College of Education Student Teacher Celebration, memories, stories and experiences were shared. Feelings of happiness, embarrassment and optimism filled the room.

The event featured many faculty members, staff and students from the college, including Dean Stacey Edmonson. Members shared words of encouragement as the future teachers prepare for the start of their careers.

Rowan Shoemaker was asked to share her experience. She earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Interdisciplinary Students with a minor in SpecialRowan630 Education. She will be certified in early childhood-sixth grade and early childhood-12th grade special education.

During Shoemaker’s speech at the celebration, in which her parents Donald and Connie were in attendance, she mentioned a trip she took, which was quite different from any other trip she had ever taken. 

“I didn’t travel far,” she said. “I didn’t go to Europe, the Caribbean or Mexico. In fact, I didn’t even need a passport. The people I met were like none I’ve ever known. All were welcoming and cared about my experience. 

“I didn’t have this adventure on my own,” she said. “My family and friends were along for the journey and it turned out to be the trip of a lifetime. This trip was much more than meeting different people, exploring an unfamiliar place and learning a new language. Instead, this trip saved my life, in more ways than one.”

The trip Shoemaker took was to MD Anderson in Houston.

She was diagnosed with neuroendocrine cancer in February. She is currently in the middle of a six-week treatment, and has undergone 14 of 30 radiation sessions and three rounds of chemotherapy. 

After the six-week treatment, she will receive a PET scan to determine the next step of treatment.

Shoemaker hasn’t let cancer get her down and discouraged—it’s actually done the complete opposite.

“Even though my trip is far from over, I’ve learned it doesn’t have to destroy your life,” she said. “I’ve been challenged, scared, inspired, motivated, encouraged, educated, and mostly humbled.

“It’s given me a new understanding of my body, and most importantly, this trip has redefined my life’s passion—teaching,” she said. “It’s made me more compassionate and understanding toward others and has opened my eyes to the challenges our students face in their own lives.”

While student teaching a third grade general education class at B.B. Rice Elementary, Shoemaker lost her hair to chemotherapy treatments.

“The students were so supportive of me and always treated me with respect,” she said. “In fact, they told me to take off my scarf or wig if I’m more comfortable teaching bald. The students were never scared to ask my questions about my diagnosis.

“I’ve been asked everything from ‘Is it contagious?’ to ‘Can we see your tumor?’ to ‘Does it hurt?’” she said. “I’ve always been honest with them and they’ve always been so sweet and encouraging throughout my student teaching assignment. I can’t say enough positive things about B.B. Rice.” 

Shoemaker said the staff and administration encouraged her every step of the way, especially her mentor teachers.

She knows the exact moment when she felt the calling to become a teacher. 

“I was in fourth grade and had befriended a kindergartner named Stephen,” she said. “Stephen had Down syndrome. One day during recess, he was determined to climb the monkey bars, but couldn’t make it past the second bar.

“I saw him struggling, so I went over and lightly carried his legs as he conquered each arm swing to the next bar,” she said. “I’ll never forget the immense joy I saw on his face. Since then, I have pursued a career in special education and am determined to change the lives of students with special needs, like Stephen.”

Shoemaker made the decision to not take a full-time teaching job during the upcoming fall to focus on getting her health back to 100 percent. 

“During that time, I hope to get a flexible tutoring job or substitute teach,” she said. “In the future, I hope to get a job as an elementary life skills teacher. It’s always been a passion of mine to teach students with special needs. I’ve seen a glimpse into the lives of students with health issues and I have so much admiration for themselves and their families, especially after being diagnosed with cancer.

“I am planning on getting my master’s, I’m just not sure what I want to get my degree in yet,” she said. “I have thought about diving deeper into the special education world and exploring a behavior intervention specialist or speech pathology program.”

When concluding her speech at the celebration, Shoemaker told the audience she doesn’t recommend taking the trip she did, but she wouldn’t change her experience. 

“Cancer has profoundly altered my life in ways I never would’ve imagined,” she said. “So, as we enter the world as fresh, new graduates, just remember that when you’re faced with something unexpected, even with a trip like mine, consider that it just may be the best thing to ever happen to you.” 

After Shoemaker’s speech, Janet Williams, director of Educator Preparedness Services at SHSU, stepped to the podium in a white T-shirt that read “Team Rowan” with an orange Bearkat paw print.

“I just want you to know that I’m team Rowan, and I’m not the only one,” she told Shoemaker. 

Imagine Dragons’ “On Top of the World” began playing in the background, a song from Shoemaker’s chemo playlist. One by one, members of the audience stood up with the same shirt and shouted, “I’m team Rowan.”

The celebration concluded with Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline,” another song from her chemo playlist. The audience swayed and sang, “Sweet Caroline, good times never seemed so good,” with an extra, “So good, so good.”

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