When Vera Figueroa of Reston, Va., business information technology major in the Pamplin College of Business, walks with her classmates at Virginia Tech’s commencement this month, she will be sure to savor the moment.

Five years ago, the summer before Figueroa planned to come to Virginia Tech as a first-year student, she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. 

“I was devastated that I had to put my life on hold for a year to receive necessary treatments,” Figueroa said. “You never know what the next day will bring and I think that is something important in college. We should always try to excel and be the best we can be today – not tomorrow, not next week, but now.”

During and after the treatments, her parents, brother, boyfriend, and friends were there to support her. “One of the most important takeaways that I’ve learned from my battle with cancer is that it takes very special people to go through it with you and stick it out with you.”

When she was able to come to Virginia Tech the next year, she was touched by how students, faculty, and staff embraced the university motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve). She was particularly moved by the support she saw through the annual Relay for Life event.

“Students raising money, supporting, and cheering on complete strangers is one of the most touching things I have witnessed,” Figueroa said. “Although my experience with cancer had its ups and downs, it was an experience worth going through. I love sharing my experience with others because it is something that is very important to me and I am always proud to be known as a cancer survivor.”

Her tenacity, empathy, and courage touched fellow students and faculty members. “Vera displays more grace and maturity than the average student. She believes that each contact is an opportunity for a meaningful interaction,” said Yalana Orr, academic advisor in the Pamplin College of Business. “She teaches others that life is short, and that as individuals, we are not exempt from adversity.”

Arriving at Virginia Tech a year later than expected, Figueroa says she knew she had to take full advantage of any opportunity that came her way. Two activities that made an impression on her deeply were serving as a Pamplin Ambassador and on the Annual Pamplin Leadership Conference Team.

“Being an ambassador was a valuable activity because I was able to share my love for my school, as well as being able to empathize with the scary and unsure feeling of going to college and knowing you picked the right place to study,” Figueroa said. “Different activities help make you into a well-rounded individual by experiencing new things, and it’s always fun to tap into something you are good at or something that you would like to try.”

Sometimes, the best college experiences may be ones that feel uncomfortable at first, Figueroa said. “One of my greatest weaknesses is public speaking. I knew when I became a Pamplin Ambassador that I would have to speak in front of crowds of people and I took that as a challenge. If I didn’t push myself to become involved in something that pushed and tested me, I would not have been as successful and I would still be terrified of public speaking.”

Trying something new and potentially uncomfortable led Figueroa to study abroad, which was “hands-down the best college experience I have had.” She spent fall 2012 at the university’s villa in Riva San Vitale, Switzerland. “This experience impacted my education because I was able to see, hear, and learn things I would have never been able to learn while in the United States. It’s a completely different culture and way of life in Europe and I think it is an experience everyone should have before they commit to a full-time career. There is no better chance to do it then in college.”

Figueroa now is working as a technology consultant for multinational professional services firm, PricewaterhouseCoopers. She says she hopes to recruit Hokies for the company in the future.

For now, she will celebrate her success by walking with her classmates at commencement this month.