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Student and single mom beat cancer, graduates and returns to FIU

by Monica Smith

Jun 23, 2021, 12:00 PM.

A story of unfettered determination and hope.

Chelsea Bermudez’s eye wouldn’t stop watering—it was more than just allergies because medicine wasn’t working. As a restaurant server, her coworkers and customers constantly asked if she was OK. She sought a medical reason for her condition and after several tests and doctor after doctor, they had arrived at a diagnosis: cancer.

Chelsea Bermudez
Chelsea Bermudez

The news hit hard for the single mom living in Orlando. Bermudez had pulled things together to change her future trajectory. Just a couple of years before, her daughter asked what she should do when she grew up. Bermudez felt convicted recommending college.

“I had to admit to my daughter that I didn’t go to college or even have a high school diploma,” she divulges. “So that conversation kind of paved the way for me to evaluate my own future.”


FIU Online

Chelsea Bermudez and her daughter
Chelsea Bermudez and her daughter

Bermudez, whose daughter is her entire world, made the decision—she got her GED, enrolled in community college, and transferred to FIU. It was just weeks after she transferred to FIU as a fully online student, that the stage-three lymphoma diagnosis came.

Thoughts raced.

Should she stay the course or drop out? What would happen to her daughter if she became too ill? Even worse thoughts tried to creep in.

“There were very few times that I let myself go really dark,” she recalls. “At one point, I was like, ‘I could possibly die’ and what’s going to happen to my daughter?”


Bermudez needed school to ground her. She needed it to work toward a goal and provide a distraction from her treatments, so she kept going and took proctored exams while receiving her regular dose of chemo at the hospital.

“It’s what pulled me back and pulled me out,” she says, knowing that with school she had an “escape out of mediocrity.”

“I knew I could make something out of myself and create a life for me and my daughter—those were the two things that kept me going: school and my daughter,” she states.

Making it through

Chelsea Bermudez

Online learning was the perfect fit. She had the self-discipline and needed the flexibility of an asynchronous degree program so she could work. There was a period she had to stop working—the treatments were just too intense. Finances became very “scary” she recollects, and she had to rely on the kindness of friends and even strangers. It was a humbling experience.

Despite it all, Bermudez continued her studies. If she didn’t have to, she didn’t tell her professors about her illness or treatments. When she did, all were super accommodating, she reports and notes that her last treatment was in July 2020.

“No more chemo! Thank God,” Bermudez exclaims. The recent graduate is even more excited about the fall term.

Optimism and advice

Bermudez will pursue her Master of Arts in Latin American and Caribbean Studies at FIU and has accepted a position as an FIU teaching assistant. Once she graduates, she wants to work in the areas of immigration rights and against human trafficking in Latin America and the Caribbean.

“Those are really my passion projects,” she affirms.

Humbled by her experience, Bermudez offers a few words of advice for fellow students who have received a recent cancer diagnosis. It’s a good idea to reach out to FIU’s Disability Resource Center and speak to your professors, she offers.  

“Don’t listen to anybody who tells you that you can’t, or you shouldn’t pursue what you want to,” she adds. “However, know your limitations—don’t push yourself past what you’re capable of. Be aware of your body, of your mind and what you can handle.”

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