Nelson Reyes has a lot to be thankful for as we head into the holiday season.
The Rutgers University–Newark senior, a nontraditional student who, at age 35, is finishing up his college career in December, has battled through adversity that no person should have to go through. But with determination, empathy, hard work and the support of professors and staff at RU-N, Reyes is about to fulfill his lifelong ambition of being the first in his family to attend college and graduate with a degree before heading to medical school in the near future.
His path has been anything but easy.
Reyes, who is majoring in neurobiology and minoring in Chemistry and cognitive neuroscience, arrived in the U.S. from the Dominican Republic when he was six years old with his mother and sister, settling in Passaic, NJ. His mom worked at beauty salons and other jobs; his father was out of the picture. He was an empathic child, routinely de-escalating confrontations, defending and consoling friends when they were bullied, and sharing his candy.
Reyes attended Passaic High School, where he excelled academically and was one of the top three students in his graduation class of 2006. Despite this, he had little guidance when considering colleges and, as a teenager fearing deportation, chose William Paterson University when they accepted him and asked no questions. He attended for a year, majoring in finance while working at a bank to pay his tuition, but he was forced to leave both due to what he says are immigration-status issues, and with that, his dreams of earning a college degree were in tatters.
Over the next seven years, as he watched his friends complete college and move on to successful careers, Reyes worked occasional construction jobs and struggled with depression. Without steady income or prospects, or the ability to get medical help for his condition, he plunged deeper. He knew he was in a bad place but didn’t want to stay there. Ever curious, he began reading voraciously about depression to understand what was happening to him, and also became more spiritual, trying to find a way to transcend his circumstances.
With all the setbacks I've had, RU-N has been a community that embraced me when I had nothing, gave me a sense of self-worth, and showed me my potential and helped me develop it.
“I kept thinking, everything happens for a reason, and I just needed to figure out what the reason was,” said Reyes. “And so I read psychology and self-help books, medical and psychiatry books—maybe 70 total—so I could understand the physiology and spiritual aspects of depression. Life was giving me signs. I just had to listen to them.”
In 2015 Reyes also made another instinctive choice that would begin changing his life: He started giving of his time through the volunteer-network organization New York Cares, working at a church soup kitchen in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood, then helping seniors at a New York Public Library on the Upper East Side.
He felt a vitality he hadn’t felt in years.
“I was suffering. I knew others were suffering, and so I started getting to know people at the church and hearing their stories,” said Reyes. “Some of them were also undocumented or suffered from mental illness. I learned a vital lesson by working with them: The only things I had to give were my time and my energy. I may have been broke and undocumented, but I was now happy and hopeful. Often it’s not the circumstances you’re in that matters but the meaning you give them.”
During this time, however, while Reyes’ spiritual health was improving, his physical health began deteriorating. Occasionally, he’d feel stabbing pains in his back, which got worse over time, but he had no primary-care physician and held off getting medical treatment until he was finally rushed to the Hackensack University Hospital emergency room in 2018 and was diagnosed with shingles.
Later that year he sat in a doctor’s office and heard even more devastating news: He had lymphoma. Reyes left that appointment and immediately went online and started the enrollment process at RU-N
“I was sure of two things: that I had to fulfill my lifelong dream of going to college, and that I’d be dead in two semesters,” said Reyes.
He was accepted to RU-N and was able to cobble together financial assistance with New jersey Tuition Assistance Grants (TAG) and help from RU-N's RUN to the TOP program. He started school and cancer treatment at the same time, putting in marathon days on campus two days a week while doing two days of chemotherapy. He was exhausted but genuinely happy to be back in school.
Reyes’ cancer, thankfully, is now in remission, and he takes meds for the chronic neuropathy he got from shingles. He’s been healthy over the last few years as he’s made the most out of his time at RU-N, entering the Honors College sophomore year, taking full course loads, completing his senior thesis on the physical and spiritual aspects of dying with Psychology Professor Samantha Heintzelman, and doing undergraduate research in the lab of Professor Wilma Friedman, a renowned neuroscientist whom Reyes credits for mentoring and helping him grow tremendously as a scientist.
Along the way, Reyes volunteered as a crisis counselor for Crisis Text Line and worked as a palliative-care volunteer for Hospice of New Jersey, which has not only been pivotal for him spiritually but also academically: That experience formed the basis of his senior thesis and his future plans as a doctor.
“No matter which subfield of medicine I go into, I know I want to be board-certified in palliative care,” said Reyes. "I received so much from the hospice patients and families I helped care for."
Reyes has made the most of his time outside of the classroom in other ways as well, shadowing doctors in the oncology, psychiatry and ER units at Hackensack University Hospital—the same place he was treated for shingles—and participating in the Summer Health Professions Education Program at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School.
Reyes will prepare for his MCAT’s after finishing the last of his course work, and will then apply to medical schools, but it’s the opportunity to study at RU-N and take advantage of all the opportunities it has afforded him that has Reyes smiling the most these days.
“This has been the biggest blessing in my life, the best thing that has ever happened to me at this point in my life,” said Reyes. “With all the setbacks I've had, RU-N has been a community that embraced me when I had nothing, gave me a sense of self-worth, and showed me my potential and helped me develop it. And in doing so, it has amplified my ability to help others, which is what matters to me most.”