UC Berkeley press release


Cancer battle puts learning in a new light for UC Berkeley's "most distinguished" 1997 graduating senior

by Kathleen Scalise

Berkeley -- Despite battling malignant melanoma, graduating senior Carl Ryanen-Grant has earned straight "As" at UC Berkeley and will receive the campus's highest academic honor, the University Medal, for his scholastic achievements.

Similar to a valedictorian award, the medal is given each spring to the "most distinguished" graduating senior at UC Berkeley.

"Carl graduates with a perfect 4.0-grade-point average," said Professor K.V.S. Sastry, chairman of the Committee on Prizes that selected Ryanen-Grant. "The committee was especially impressed with Carl's involvement as director of the Cal in Berkeley Student Internship Program and as a researcher in the history department at the Oakland Museum.

"All this he was able to do in spite of the fact he was diagnosed with malignant melanoma, though his illness did not enter into the committee decision. In fact, we did not even ask him about his illness. We just treated him like any other student."

The University Medal will be awarded at the 1997 Commencement Convocation May 13 at 4 p.m. in Hearst Greek Theatre. Ryanen-Grant will speak at the ceremony prior to the keynote address, to be delivered this year by Bill Cosby.

Ryanen-Grant, 21, was born in the North Beach district of San Francisco. His father worked in the San Francisco shipyards and the family moved to Concord when Ryanen-Grant was two years old.

When graduating from Ygnacio Valley High School in 1993, he earned the award for the student who best embodied scholarship, leadership and citizenship.

The last time Ryanen-Grant can recall having any difficulty with school was in second grade. "I was kept in at recess because I was having trouble subtracting something from something, but after that it was smooth sailing," he said.

He came to UC Berkeley intent on majoring in political science, but soon switched to history.

"I didn't like political science," he said. "Although political science and history are very similar, political science is too centered around argument. I felt more intrigued and intellectually curious about history. It suited me more."

His senior thesis was on the response of the African American community to activities of the Ku Klux Klan in Los Angeles.

In addition to his studies, Ryanen-Grant has directed the Cal in Berkeley Student Internship Program, which recruits up to 35 students a year and places them in local government or community internships. He also works for the Oakland Museum's history department cataloging Oakland Tribune photographic archives.

He came to UC Berkeley to study because "it's an incredibly densely dramatic place with highly intelligent, articulate people all over the place just waiting to be met," he said.

Ryanen-Grant was diagnosed with malignant melanoma in January 1996 after a suspicious mole appeared on his back.

"Nobody my age thinks about these things, of having it themselves," he said. "I started on a nightmarish roller-coaster ride that is still going on. I was totally flabbergasted when I realized the implications."

While most skin cancer "is non-fatal and easily removable even in the dermatologist's office, my kind is often fatal and just as vicious as breast cancer or lung cancer," he said.

Last spring "was an incredibly emotionally trying semester," he said. "It was just like a descent into darkness. I was investigating all the treatment options that were possible and going to school this entire time, continuing to work, living in Berkeley. It was very draining, those months."

And so, under those conditions, how did he still manage to walk away with the Class of 1997's top academic honor?

Ryanen-Grant smiled wryly and shrugged. "The irony is I'm much more content with my life than I was before. I now know what's important in the grand scheme ... basically, solid and fulfilling personal relationships.

"My mother, for example -- we now see each other all the time, we talk on the phone every day or every other day, she drives me to the doctor. This has reinvigorated (our) relationship."

Which "doesn't mean that essays and classes and tests aren't important, but they exist in a limited sphere," he said. "I realized in five or 10 years, it's not going to matter one whit whether I got an A or a B on a particular French examination, say, but my friends, this community, will affect my happiness for the balance of my life."

When he does study these days, he looks on the process differently.

"The learning I did to understand my melanoma I knew might have a very big life or death impact for me. That makes viewing learning a lot different," he said.

Ryanen-Grant is not sure if his future plans will revolve around the history he has studied. But for now his main concern is to complete a year of experimental interferon treatment begun after prior approaches failed and the cancer spread.

"There's no real way of telling if it's going to work or not," said Ryanen-Grant, "but it's the only FDA-approved treatment for this stage of melanoma. It doesn't have an overwhelming success rate."

Yet Ryanen-Grant remains hopeful.

"In general I keep a very positive demeanor," he said. "With all these health problems, I have realized everything in life I still want to do. Having melanoma and being faced with losing that future and the possibilities of doing the things I want to do has increased my hope exponentially. But it's really a rocky road. I would say I'm hopeful, positive, anxious -- no, not anxious -- curious."

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