May 17, 2024

Scholar Sarah Downey ’24 won’t let cancer keep her from commencement

By Vicki-Ann Downing

Denied a high school graduation ceremony by the pandemic in 2020, Sarah Downey ’24 won’t let cancer stop her from participating in her Providence College commencement.

By any measure, Downey was a top student at PC. A member of the Honors Program, she majored in Spanish and secondary education and minored in women’s and gender studies. She spent the spring semester of her junior year abroad in Madrid. She completed research projects with faculty members through independent study and a Summer Undergraduate Research Grant. She worked at community organizations, including the Boys and Girls Club of Providence and Progreso Latino in Central Falls, and was honored for her civic involvement by Campus Compact as a Newman Civic Fellow for the 2023-2024 academic year.

Downey’s studies were interrupted in February 2024 by a diagnosis of cardiac angiosarcoma, a rare and aggressive cancer that forms in the lining of the blood and lymph vessels. She is undergoing chemotherapy at Dana Farber Cancer Institute, which will be followed by proton radiation therapy at Massachusetts General Hospital.

“I don’t know what the future holds, but I feel the need to continue my intellectual pursuits throughout treatment, whether that means auditing classes, guiding my own literary research, or even just reading for enjoyment,” Downey said.   

Sarah Downey '24 at the entrance to the Ruane Center for the Humanities.
Sarah Downey ’24 poses for a graduation photo at the entrance to the Ruane Center for the Humanities.

Growing up in Tiverton, Rhode Island, Downey said she was “such a dreamer.” She was adamant about studying medicine at Stanford or an Ivy League college. When life got difficult at home, she doubled down on academics, enrolling in the most challenging AP courses, determined not to fail. “I’d been told that children in unstable home environments were less likely to succeed. I was determined to dream for myself a future that was not dictated by the odds against me,” Downey said.

When her father died the summer before her senior year of high school, her goals shifted.

“When faced with mortality, your own or that of a loved one, you reevaluate what matters,” Downey said. “My father’s death motivated me to find my purpose as I transitioned into college.” A few days after the funeral, she left for a summer immersion program in Oaxaca, Mexico, a trip she had planned for months. It allowed her to reconnect, in the midst of her grief, with what she loved most in life.

“I had wanted to be a doctor and to study neurology, the brain, how people work, to understand people,” Downey said. “After taking AP chemistry in high school, I realized that my passions lay beyond the hard sciences. What had enticed me about medicine was the patient-doctor relationship, the humanity in medicine, not the body’s molecular processes.”

Downey began to think about a career in teaching. Somehow, during the most difficult days following the loss of her father, her teachers provided support. If Downey arrived at school without a lunch, a teacher had one for her.

“When my dad died, so many educators became my family,” Downey said. “They went above and beyond for me. Providing students with basic needs helps them succeed. I wanted to do something similar for young people.”

Downey decided to study secondary education and Spanish. She chose PC because she was invited to join the Honors Program and was offered a substantial merit scholarship.

“The Honors Program has given me the academic rigor I wanted and a community of students who feel the same way about their academics as I do,” Downey said. “We are always seeking answers to questions that don’t really have answers.”

Secondary education major Sarah Downey '24 in a classroom, masked due to the pandemic.
Secondary education major Sarah Downey ’24 in a classroom at East Providence High School. She is masked due to the pandemic.

Downey’s first teaching experience occurred on Zoom. Most children had their cameras turned off. She was discouraged and considered switching her major to social work or psychology.

“Ultimately, as I went ahead with my practicums and teaching in urban settings, I saw the need,” Downey said. “Our children have needs and so do our schools. Public schools are underfunded and teachers are underpaid. But even when you feel powerless, you do what you can, within your classroom, to be there for your students.”

Downey’s drive to build connection led to her job at the Boys and Girls Club in the Fox Point neighborhood of Providence. Because of her interest in secondary education, she asked to work with older students but was given kindergarteners due to staffing needs.

“I took on a lot of responsibility very quickly and found myself well beyond my comfort zone,” Downey said. “I never realized how much younger kids could have an impact on you as an educator. One day, during a morning check-in, I asked them to describe an influential person in their life. One child said, ‘My dad, but he died.’ I sat in this circle, amazed, as a group of kindergartners facilitated their own conversation on loss. It was innocent, yet incredibly profound.”

Downey began working for the Boys and Girls Club during her sophomore year and continued through her senior year. She worked from 3-6:30 p.m. every day, building her academic schedule around it. Each summer, she worked at least 40 hours a week. She co-taught academic enrichment courses through Providence Public School’s summer learning program each morning and facilitated traditional camp activities in the afternoon.

“I was in the hospital for almost a month at the beginning of the semester, so I wasn’t working,” Downey said. “When I got out and began to understand the severity of the diagnosis, the poor prognosis, I thought that if I only have a limited amount of time, my greatest fear is not dying. It is not leaving an impact, not doing something notable. So, I went back to the Boys and Girls Club part time. That is how I can make an impact. Going back has given me that purpose.”

She has been able to watch the kindergarten students progress socially and academically as they advance to 2nd and 3rd grade.

“Reading and writing are two of my passions,” Downey said. “My greatest joy has been working with students in these areas. To see a kid read for the first time lights up my world.”

At the annual Celebration of Scholarship and Creativity in April 2022, Sarah Downey '24 presented her research into the affect of second-hand trauma on educators.
At the annual Celebration of Scholarship and Creativity in April 2022, Sarah Downey ’24 presented her research into the effect of second-hand trauma on educators.

Downey’s academic curiosity led to research. As a sophomore, she investigated second-hand trauma among teachers in urban schools and concluded that trauma-informed teaching practices should be part of teacher preparation programs. Her mentor was Comfort Ateh, Ph.D., professor of secondary education and associate provost for diversity, equity, and inclusion.

As a junior, working with Monica Simal, Ph.D., associate professor of Spanish, Downey investigated the repression of the LGBTQ community in Cuba, particularly women, under Castro.

“At the start, I studied Cuba from a historical perspective,” Downey said. “But the bulk of my research has been guided by Caribbean poetry and prose written by women, which have become, for me, deep sources of both knowledge and enjoyment.”

During her semester in Madrid, Downey met and interviewed Gleyvis Coro Montanet, a Cuban-born writer of poetry and prose. She received a Summer Undergraduate Research Grant from PC’s Center for Engaged Learning during the summer of 2023 and co-wrote an article with Simal that will be published in a literary journal in Barcelona in June.

“People sometimes struggle to understand the essence of literary research,” Downey said. “There are no conclusive answers. There will never be. Literary research requires one to examine the past and learn from it. It requires one to look inward and reexamine prejudices. It’s not a race to the finish line. It’s a deeply reflective process.”

Because illness interrupted Downey’s student teaching at East Providence High School, she was not able to complete the requirements for her degree in secondary education. She will graduate summa cum laude with a degree in Spanish.

“I student-taught for the first three weeks of the spring semester. The positive relationships I had begun to cultivate with my students drove me to keep teaching up until I could not physically teach anymore,” Downey said. “Following my diagnosis, my students and cooperating teacher, Meghann Almeida, sent me a school sweatshirt and cards to show their support. Once a Townie, always a Townie.”

She also has been supported by the college community. A GoFundMe established on her behalf was tipped over its $50,000 goal by a donation from men’s basketball coach Kim English. She has received notes from athletic teams and student organizations.

Sarah Downey '24 outside Harkins Hall.
Sarah Downey ’24 outside Harkins Hall.

“When I first came to PC, I wasn’t sure it was the right choice,” Downey said. “Looking back, I’m glad that I went here, more for the people than anything else. We all find our tribe, even in the most unexpected of places. I’ve cultivated lifelong friendships with people from all walks of life, a chosen family, if you will.”

Downey’s majors and minor were more than academic qualifications — they were her passions. At the Academic Awards ceremony, she will receive the Lidia B. Aronne-Amestoy Award, presented to the world language major whose academic achievement, intellectual curiosity, and spirit of collaboration honor Aronne-Amestoy, a literary critic, scholar, and poet.

“A lot of people see degrees in the humanities as useless,” Downey said. “Spanish is not a degree of utility. There is no clear career path. But there is tremendous power in the study of language and literature. To fully study a language, you must accept the inevitability of imperfection. To fully study literature, you must look beyond Western thought and seek out marginalized voices that have been silenced.

“I wanted to study medicine to understand humans. I thought it had to be through a scientific lens. Through literature and community engagement, I’ve come to understand people and myself in ways I could never have thought possible.”

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