Stella Grace Culhane Karjalainen
2013's Alumni Club Scholarship Recipient
“Balance the boat. Don’t ever let it capsize.” These were words from my rowing coach that became a mantra for me and my family through the next two years. On June 9, 2010, my mom was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. She was thrown into a violent cycle of chemotherapy, and my family and I were sent reeling from the shock. We gathered to watch helplessly as my mom was continually pummeled by the drugs; constantly pushing her to the very edge of death and pulling her back in at the last second. I watched my mom fade under the effects of the drugs, occasionally reappearing to give me a weak smile. After six months of ultimately unsuccessful chemotherapy, my mom was forced to face a difficult decision. She would either be transferred to The Stanford Hospital, where she would receive a bone marrow transplant and face endless risks and a discouraging success rate, or freely live the rest of her life while allowing the disease to slowly progress. Choosing the bone marrow transplant gave us no guarantee of her survival, and the treatment was experimental and radical. But that was the best chance she had.
My mom moved into the Stanford Hospital, and my siblings, my dad and I were forced to go on with our so-called “normal” lives. My siblings traveled back to their respective homes, I went back for my sophomore year at Saint Ignatius, and my dad tried to balance being the sole income provider for us, a loving and caring husband, and an understanding father. He and I moved to Palo Alto, about an hour and a half from our home in Fairfax, to be close to my mom. My mom would have some good health reports, some bad health reports, some days stable, some days unstable--always unpredictable. Between school, rowing, watching my dad’s silent fear increasing each day, easing my mother’s unwarranted guilt, and keeping my own emotions in check, there was a lot to balance. I credit a lot of my ability to balance all of it to rowing. At the time, rowing was the only way I could protect myself from my own fear. Every practice was a physical discharge of energy; a visible outlet for my abundance of pent up anger and emotion. Having crew to fall back on allowed me to forget, for three and a half hours every day, that my life was crumbling. This allowed my mom to focus on getting better, my dad to focus on her, and me to just keep rowing through the turmoil. Much like the blade of the oar forces the water out of its way, I pushed my fear and anxiety out of my mind and let the rhythmic sound of the boat be my only thought. Thankfully, my mom’s transplant was successful, and although she continues to face chronic side effects, she is breathing and living today and I am eternally grateful for that.
What Being a Wolverine Means to Me:
The college search is a complicated process. There are many different factors to take into consideration: location, majors, athletics, reputation, graduate success, campus atmosphere, and many others. For me, Michigan fulfilled and exceeded all of these requirements. However, one of the main reasons I chose Michigan--one of the main reasons I knew I wanted to be a Wolverine--was the love that the students and alumni have for their school. During my first campus visit, I was overwhelmed by the spirit of the students and the dedication and loyalty they have for the Maize and Blue. Since I have decided to attend the University of Michigan, and therefore worn something purchased from the M-Den nearly every day, that spirit has been confirmed and encouraged by strangers on the street asking me what year I would be attending, or giving me a simple, “Go Blue!” Being a Wolverine means working hard, discovering who I am as a person, and Hailing to all that makes the University of Michigan so great.
There were many aspects of my life that changed when my mom was diagnosed with leukemia. Thankfully, my family has healthcare and many of her bills were taken care of by friends and family wanting to help out. I was able to continue my private high school education through scholarship and work-study. Although she is no longer in the hospital and her medical bills have decreased dramatically, she is still on a strict and costly regimen of over fifteen pills a day, and her disease leaves her primarily unemployed. This scholarship would mean less strain on my family, more trips to and from Ann Arbor, and a sense of financial reassurance for my parents.