Stephen DiPietro was cleaning out his garage last month when he stopped, arrested by an old photo he wishes he could forget.
In it, his son, also named Stephen, had the telltale swollen skin and absent eyebrows of a chemotherapy patient. The boy was in eighth grade at the time, just 13 and suffering through the challenging treatment for stage 4 Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a white blood cell disease that slowly destroys the immune system if unchecked.
“That’s not the way I think of him,” said DiPietro, who is Drexel University’s vice provost for university assessment, accreditation and institutional effectiveness. “That’s not the way I see him today; it’s night and day.”
Today, 11 years later, Stephen is healthy, and he’s a Drexel graduate, thanks in large part to a full scholarship he received from Eagles Fly for Leukemia, a 45-year-old organization created by former Philadelphia Eagles tight end Fred Hill to fight pediatric cancer. Each year, the University offers a scholarship to an incoming freshman who is a childhood cancer survivor as part of Eagles Fly’s commitment to help families deal with the non-medical expenses of caring for their children.
Stephen still remembers standing in the phone booth at his high school, St. Joseph’s Preparatory School, when he got the call that told him he’d be going to Drexel.
“I was shocked,” he recalled. “I knew Drexel was where I wanted to go. After everything I’d been through, I saw it as another opportunity, another challenge, and I was ecstatic.”
Carlie McWilliams had a similar reaction when she found out she’d be a Dragon, just a few years removed from being diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia in her first year of high school in South Jersey. The bone marrow disease put her in the hospital for six months while she underwent four rounds of chemotherapy at Nemours Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children.
“It means the world to me,” McWilliams said of her scholarship as she sat outside the W.W. Hagerty Library two weeks into her freshman classes. “Like any kid I dreamed of going away to college. I still sit back sometimes and think, ‘Wow, this is real.’ I’m really grateful for it.”
McWilliams is diving into her first term and it’s no coincidence that she enrolled in the College of Nursing and Health Professions. She hadn’t always intended to study nursing, but her experience in the hospital gave her a new perspective.
“I gained more respect seeing firsthand what they had to deal with,” McWilliams said of her nurses. “Seeing that, I wanted to be that for someone. I want to help people. I want to maybe even work in oncology and help kids on a personal level: ‘Yeah, I’m your nurse, but I know what you’re going through.’”
Drexel hosted a ceremony Dec. 7 in the A.J. Drexel Picture Gallery honoring the University’s three scholarship recipients thus far — in addition to Stephen and McWilliams, BoDean Messier was awarded a scholarship and graduated this year with a degree in biological sciences. There’s a shared understanding among the Eagles Fly recipients about what they’ve been through.
“The opportunity that they give people who are still going through this, or have gone through it, it’s so great,” Stephen said. “After you deal with such a difficult period in your life, you have an opportunity to succeed in your future.”
Stephen finished his bachelor’s in information systems in 2015 and now works as an information protection specialist at Cigna in Philadelphia. He’s finishing a master’s in national security management through Drexel Online.
As for his father, DiPietro doesn’t like to dwell on painful reminders of the days when his son was sick. Instead, he keeps a photo on the desk in his office in Main Building of his son on the day he graduated from Drexel. In it, father and son stand alongside President John Fry. At Fry’s suggestion, DiPietro was the one who handed his son the diploma. All three are beaming.
Looking at it, there’s no sign that Stephen ever dealt with the ravages of cancer. He looks like a college graduate with a bright future ahead of him, his history in hospitals now set squarely in the past.
“It was incredible,” Stephen said of that day. “It was a truly great end to what was a wonderful experience on campus at Drexel.”