Student Spotlight: Cassie Nguyen provides a light for kids fighting cancer

Courtesy of UCR Today
Courtesy of UCR Today

Just a couple of weeks ago, the fourth-year public policy major had been darting to and fro, putting the finishing touches on the first-ever screening to showcase the films created by children in the program. The room was filled with people, leaving standing room only. Many were people Cassie had met over the years — professors, doctors, supporters — and others were UCR students or staff members who had discovered the event on their own.

 The purpose of Spotlight on Hope is simple: to provide children and teenagers a break from the monotony of test after test, endless waiting time after endless waiting time, gray wall after gray wall, something Cassie knows well. It gives children smiles on their faces. It’s also completely free, something Cassie and the filmmaking duo of Ramon Hamilton and Jennifer Fischer, the people who teach the filmmaking basics to children, believe is important. “It’s really about fostering creativity … and (having) a therapeutic outlet,” Fischer said.

Hamilton added that they’ve had groups come to every single camp they’ve held. Now, some of the people attending the camps are capable of teaching the classes themselves. Fischer related a time when she was prevented from instructing a class, and one of the longtime attendees stepped forward and started teaching. “It’s really nice to see that kind of growth as well from some of the students,” she said.

When I spoke with Cassie later, she was energetic and eager. She described her high school self as involved in several clubs, five sports and all the AP classes she could handle. She was determined to go to Columbia University, graduate and become a journalist. “I loved the show ‘Gilmore Girls,’” Cassie laughed, “and I wanted to be exactly like Alexis Bledel,” referring to one of the main characters of the show who juggles her academics with running for student government and writing for the school newspaper.

Then the dizziness started. Pounding migraines. Vomiting. Trouble staying balanced. Double-vision. Cassie and her mom kept visiting doctors. At first, they thought it might have been a stomach ulcer. But blood tests and urine tests showed nothing. Finally, after examining her eyes, one doctor told her mom to get Cassie an MRI “right now.” Cassie thought it was just another test, one in a long string of results that had told them nothing, and that she would be going back to school the next day.

This test was different. There was a brain tumor. Malignant.

 She was 16.

“I was a high school dropout overnight,” she said. For three months, she underwent a harsh treatment to combat the growth lodged in her brain. She lost her hair. Her right arm became paralyzed — she had to learn how to write with her left. Her priorities changed, too. Columbia was no longer an option. Family and a built-in support group became more important than ever, so she returned to high school, worked with the American Cancer Society to lobby for legislation supporting cancer survivors, took classes at Riverside City College and interned at Think Ten Media Group, where the idea for Spotlight on Hope first took root. When she transferred from RCC to UCR, it provided the perfect opportunity for the idea to flower.

Because the camp is entirely free, obtaining the funds needed to set up the camp, provide families with transportation and rent out space can be difficult. Cassie went ahead and applied for the prestigious Donald Strauss scholarship — and won. The Spotlight on Hope film camp now had $10,000, which it used to host eight separate camps for children going through treatment at UCLA. Now the group is looking for donations in hopes of expanding the program to UCR.

“I want this to be a success,” Cassie said. “This is what I created … My hope for this is to be a big nonprofit.”

 At the film screening, nearly two dozen films were showcased, all made by children fighting cancer with the help of their friends and families. They range from short and simple animations to detailed Lego constructions to whimsical longer stories that could only be told with the vibrant imagination of a child.

“At the Screening, Cassie mentioned that she had a great support system,” said Jane Kim, a counselor at University Honors, who is also Cassie’s advisor and helped organize the film screening. “Looking around the room, it was very apparent that she does. I think this shows how much heart, faith, and courage Cassie has; people don’t just rally behind anyone. They rally behind someone they believe in.”

 Through it all, Cassie keeps going, always looking forward to the next step and never pitying herself. Through our entire interview, her face was either vibrant, as she talked about the achievements of the film camp students, or collected, when she remembered her own experiences facing cancer. Only when she started talking about the film camp attendees’ own bouts with cancer did her voice start to quiver. She haltingly relayed, seemingly on the verge of tears, “A lot of them are bullied — because they have cancer.”

 So Spotlight on Hope continues, hoping to hold more film camps and provide a break for those fighting cancer, even if it’s just for a little while. With support from the UCR community, she hopes to do just that.

“Yes you can. You can do it. Don’t stop believing in yourself. Don’t think less of yourself,” Cassie advised students dealing with cancer. “That’s all I want. I want to give back and do things for people with cancer and never stop fighting for them. And just give back.”

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