A story about Penn State Lehigh Valley 2020 Student Marshal from the perspective of her classmate and fellow recent graduate, Carissa Ackley.
When I first met Saschelle A. Mandoza, the 2020 student marshal for my graduating class, I was a first-year student. We were in CC 200: Introduction to Corporate Communication, taught by Beth Michalec, lecturer for corporate communication, both pursuing a bachelor of arts degree in corporate communication.
Being a freshman, I knew very few people in that classroom — but by the time I walked out 75 minutes later at its conclusion, I felt like I knew her.
Mandoza stood out in my memory because she was vibrant, brimming over with personality. She asked relevant questions. Her sense of humor was tasteful and upbeat. Later, I would learn that she worked hard to earn the grades she did (I distinctly remember her name being the first reply on a discussion board assignment — for context, I generally liked to submit things about 10 minutes before the deadline), but she felt no need to brag or parade them. She was everyone’s friend and no one’s enemy.
She was a warrior, too; I just didn’t know it at the time.
Fast forward a few more years, and now (as of May 9) both Mandoza and I have graduated from Penn State Lehigh Valley. One hundred and five students in total graduated from Penn State Lehigh Valley this weekend, 102 bachelor degrees and three associate degrees were awarded. Our big day started with a link to the virtual commencement program that had been made available on social media. Graduates were individually celebrated throughout the day with personal photos and quotes posted to the campus’ Facebook and Instagram accounts. At 2 p.m., a virtual University-wide ceremony was held, followed by a Penn State Lehigh Valley web page containing a special message from Chancellor Tina Q. Richardson, along with five video messages for graduates and a collection of individual slides about each graduate.
As student marshal, Mandoza was featured in one of those five videos, where she shared her speech for the graduating class. And what a speech it was!
Unlike some, I had already learned bits and pieces about her personal journey as we progressed through the years, though it wasn’t until our junior and senior years that I began to understand and appreciate the kind of inspiring, enduring personality she really had.
A nontraditional student, Mandoza was an active member of Lambda Pi Eta, Communication Society, Launchbox Ladies Advisory Council and Nittany News throughout her collegiate journey. Through her involvement with the Student Government Association, she also participated in various volunteer work and made the Dean’s List every semester.
Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking with Mandoza over the phone. How excited I was to see a classmate and friend soar so high! How satisfied I was to have her as a representative of our class! I couldn’t stop talking about how proud I was of her.
My pride for Mandoza was not the simple product of being on good terms with a classmate. It would be easy to overlook the unbending, steel-like personality at her core if one focused only on her pleasant nature. In actuality, Mandoza embodies the virtues of determination and endurance. In my phone call with her, we looked back on her unique journey and remembered both the good and difficult times, as well as the mentor who made an enormous impact on her during her time at Penn State Lehigh Valley.
Even during the very beginning of her college career with Penn State, Mandoza felt welcomed.
“Everyone greeted me with open arms. Though I was an adult learner, it was so easy to adjust to the classroom setting. It almost felt like I joined a family instead of a university. I felt so motivated to be involved on campus.”
-- Saschelle A. Mandoza, remembering those early CC 200-era days
However, remembering her hard-fought journey to success can be understandably emotional for Mandoza. As I learned at a later date, Mandoza discovered that she had a brain aneurysm in September 2018. A month later in October 2018, she was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder called connective tissue disease.
“I didn’t handle it well,” she said. “But it forced me to be open with my professors about my health problems so that I could successfully coordinate my schoolwork while starting a round of medication.”
Though her striving for academic excellence and community engagement never faltered as she dealt with the disease, more troubles were yet to come. In December 2019, after interacting with a breast cancer awareness presentation in Penn State Lehigh Valley’s Centre Hall, she decided to schedule a precautionary breast exam. Yet, after undergoing tests, she found herself unexpectedly diagnosed with breast cancer.
“How on earth did you handle that?” I asked her in amazement during our conversation. “I wouldn’t have been able to attend class after. I still don’t know how you did.”
“Well, when I heard the diagnosis, I just dropped to my knees and sobbed my eyes out. My whole body was numb,” Mandoza said. “And I let myself cry for a bit, and then I stood back up and said, ‘Okay. What’s our next step?’ My friends and family urged me to take time off school to rest, but I just couldn’t do it. I was too determined. After my double mastectomy, focusing on completing my degree gave me a goal I could work towards. It was something that took my pain and made it productive. If it wasn’t for school, I don’t think I would have beaten breast cancer the way I did.”
Mandoza also praises the supportive network of faculty and friends at Penn State Lehigh Valley for carrying her through the traumatic experiences.
“A week after finals in December 2019, a few of my professors and classmates took me to Applebees and threw a ‘going away’ breast cancer party to show support before my first surgery. And while I was recovering in the hospital, many faculty members stayed in touch and regularly checked up on me.”
When Mandoza was notified in February 2020 that she had been nominated for this year’s position of student marshal, she was both honored and shocked.
“I was so nervous!” she said. “I remember thinking, ‘Wait, how is this even possible?’ It just didn’t even seem real.”
To Mandoza, the position of student marshal is an honor she takes very seriously.
“The student marshal should represent the school and show what Penn State is all about; it is so important to engage in the community, both on and off campus, even in the face of adversity. It meant so much to have my efforts recognized and to be chosen to represent the class of 2020,” she said.
Mandoza credits a large part of her remarkable journey to the excellent quality of mentorship she received from this year’s faculty marshal, Nichola Gutgold, professor of communication arts and sciences.
“I met Dr. Gutgold in my first semester at Penn State Lehigh Valley. She taught CAS 352: Organizational Communication. I went to her office after class to introduce myself. After seeing my interest, she urged me to join LaunchBox Ladies. We began to bond through the regular networking events. Eventually, she became my go-to mentor whenever I had problems or needed advice,” Mandoza said.
When asked, Gutgold has a hard time selecting just a few of the qualities that make Mandoza such an inspiring individual.
“She always represented herself very professionally and showed such an eagerness for learning, which impressed me. I don’t always have students come to my office after the first class!” Gutgold said. “She is such a tenacious individual and I’m so honored to have been a part of her journey.”
Right around graduation, I had the pleasure of seeing an update on Mandoza’s Facebook page; she had been offered a position as an account executive with Fire Marketing in Atlanta, Georgia. After graduation, she will be moving to Georgia to begin her post-graduate career. In addition to her degree from Penn State Lehigh Valley, she will also take with her an associate of arts in general studies from Lehigh Carbon Community College. She is thrilled about the opportunity. I am similarly thrilled, but with a heavy heart; the Lehigh Valley area will miss her dearly.
“I have to ask you this question,” I said apologetically while we wrapped up our phone call. “What advice do you have for our classmates and college students in general?”
She thought for a moment. The enormity of everything she had overcome was palpable in her brief silence. At last, she offered this advice: “Don’t let anything stand in your way. Always fight for what you want, no matter what.”
If Mandoza could overcome everything that she did, I’m happy to take her advice as fact. From one graduate to another, Mandoza: thank you for being a symbol of endurance, positivity and hope in any and all kinds of circumstances.