‘MY degree is HER degree’

Cancer threatened her mother’s life and her own college career, but JohVonne Roberts will graduate this month thanks to her resolve and a boost from a special fund that a couples’ planned gift will expand.

Tuesday, May 7, 2024
SDSU senior JohVonne Roberts
SDSU senior JohVonne Roberts hopes to launch a career in sports broadcasting or producing.

San Diego State University senior JohVonne Roberts may never shake the memory from her first undergraduate year in 2020. The pandemic was raging as she attended classes virtually from her Los Angeles home, looking forward to being on the SDSU campus.

But cancer, not COVID-19, was the disease that would threaten her plans. When her mother received a diagnosis of stage III breast cancer, the news was devastating.

“It was a really heavy thing for my family to comprehend,” recalls Roberts, a graduating journalism and media studies major. Although her mother’s side of the family has a history of breast cancer, she said, “to hear that my mother had it was very shocking for me.”  

Roberts said her first thought was to get a job to help with expenses and to assist in caring for her mom, who would be undergoing treatments. Despite her mother’s assurances that everything would be fine “going to work and then coming back to focus on classes and homework was my thing,” Roberts said. “I wanted her to see me succeed and to see her youngest daughter graduate with a degree.”

Although health insurance largely covered the big medical bills, costs for things like tuition, housing, groceries and transportation became a challenge for a household that included Roberts, her mother and her aunt.  There were times, Roberts said, when they wondered where they would get the money.

She had always been a high-achieving student, active in school organizations and earning good grades. Roberts knew how to keep a positive attitude even with her family facing so many hurdles — her mom taught her that — but all else shrank beside the most difficult thought to chase from her mind:

“I think the hardest part was to not think about death. My mom didn’t want me to worry about her, but I still worried,” Roberts acknowledged.


Perusing an SDSU website while seeking financial solutions, Roberts came across the Wallace, Shatsky, Blackburn, Courage Through Cancer Fund. The fund supports SDSU students diagnosed with cancer, or whose finances have been affected by cancer in a significant way such as the diagnosis of a close family member.

The fund was created in September 2018 by alumna Tammy Blackburn (’94, ’01), senior director of marketing and communications for SDSU University Relations and Development, after she was diagnosed with stage III breast cancer and then stage IV incurable cancer. Since that time, the fund has helped 36 students with assistance for tuition, books, housing, meal plans and more to keep them on track for earning degrees.

Roberts applied for an award and was approved to receive funding.  She says it has made all the difference in completing her degree.

“If it weren't for the fund, I would have been struggling to pay for tuition and books as well as housing and may have even dropped out,” she said. “It has one hundred percent helped me with all of those things.”


Frederick W. Pierce IV (’84, ’88) is a staunch supporter of Courage Through Cancer Fund and has been a continuing contributor since it originated. Pierce and his wife Christine F. Pierce recently announced a $500,000 planned gift to create an endowment for the fund to assure that future SDSU students affected by cancer will always have a place to turn for help.

Pierce has met many of the fund’s award recipients and is impressed how it has impacted their circumstances and changed their lives. He pointed out that many of these students are involved in campus organizations, noting that during her senior year Roberts has served as head captain of the SDSU Diamonds majorette dance team and president of the SDSU chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists.

“They are fighters, they are leaders. Every single one you meet is involved in student government or another campus organization,” Pierce said. Blackburn, the fund’s founder, credited Pierce with helping others recognize the fund’s significance in contributing to student success.

“Fred and Christine fully understand the importance of keeping these students moving toward their degrees even as they confront some of the biggest challenges of their lives,” Blackburn said. “Generations of students and their families facing similar circumstances will be grateful for their  foresight in endowing this fund.”


Roberts is grateful the Pierces and other generous donors are providing answers for students like her who feel like they are in crisis without options. “Donors like Fred and Christine are a huge help and I don't know where I would be without them,” she said.

At a reception where Courage Through Cancer Fund recipients met fund donors, Roberts said she was grateful for the opportunity to personally express her gratitude. “I just told them how thankful I am, what their donations meant for me, and how I turned the struggle into something greater,” she said. 

In her case that’s a 3.4 GPA and a degree with which Roberts hopes to launch a career in sports broadcasting or producing. When she crosses the Viejas Arena stage on Saturday to receive her diploma, she will be cheered by several family members including her mother, who is still being treated for cancer, but is doing much better.

Roberts expects her commencement to be “very emotional” for what it represents beyond the end of her college experience. Cancer claimed the life of her maternal grandmother after Roberts’s mother stopped her education to care for her and then never went back.

“So, my degree is her degree, really, because she helped me get to where I am now.” Roberts said. “I’m emotional about it but I know she’s happy and I like making her happy.”

To learn more about how to make a planned gift, contact Amy Walling, [email protected].

To double your impact, make a donation of any amount to the Courage Through Cancer Fund Endowment and alumnus, Mark Mays, will match your gift dollar for dollar. 

Categorized As