The Illinois Commitment scholarship program made an Illinois education possible for Nariah Romero-Rudy (LAS ’23). In this essay, she shares the inspiration behind her dream of becoming a genetic counselor. The Illinois Storytellers series brings you first-person pieces from distinctive Illinois voices.
When I’m in the lab extracting and isolating a piece of DNA, I’m always in awe of how these tiny bits of genetic material hold the instructions to life.
The DNA in our cells replicates every time a cell divides. The process is precise and reliable—until one day, it isn’t. That faulty copy can mean a mutation like blue eyes that appeared in humans thousands of generations ago. It can also mean cancer.
My sister Aleeya and I share DNA inherited from our parents. We both have brown hair, wide smiles, and are fiercely competitive. But when Aleeya developed leukemia ten years ago, I didn’t know what DNA was yet. All I knew was that my three-year-old sister was sick, and she and my mother would spend long stretches of time at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis.
My dad stayed behind with my middle sister and me. He was a truck driver, so our grandparents or aunts took care of us while he had to go on the road. Sometimes, though, we would all make the four-hundred-mile trip to visit Aleeya.
I remember how small she looked in the hospital bed, a tube strapped to her arm, her curly, brown hair still covering her head. The chemo would come for that later.
It was those visits that sparked my interest in the healthcare profession. Aleeya had one of the top cancer doctors in the country—really, in the world. I remember being in awe of him. He was mesmerizing. I was comforted knowing he was taking care of Aleeya, and that people like him were doing as much as possible to help.
Now that I’m older, I understand how good a scientist and doctor he was. Watching him translate that information with such kindness and ease was inspiring. After that experience, I knew I wanted to help other people navigate difficult times, just as he helped us.
Thankfully, Aleeya is healthy today. When I look back at it, that one tiny mutation in her DNA had a significant effect on the evolution of our family. For me, it set me on a path that brought me to Illinois.
By the time I got to AP biology class in high school, I dreamed of working in a lab just like the one I work in today. As an undergraduate, I am lucky to work in Dr. Angela Kent’s lab where we study microbial ecology, and where I study the powerful, yet sometimes imperfect, story of a pair of coiled polynucleotide chains.
Growing up in Danville, just thirty miles east of campus, Illinois was literally in my backyard. I had fond memories of going to games and competing in academic challenges on campus.
I knew I would apply, but even if I did get accepted, how would I find the money to attend?
Then in October of my senior year in high school, my family and I headed to Champaign for my eighteenth birthday dinner. Right before the Neil Street exit stood a billboard with just a few words: Illinois Commitment. Four Years. Free Tuition.
A sign from above! Literally!
Driving by that simple message convinced me that going here was a real possibility, and I needed to apply.
I’m the first person in my immediate family—even in my extended family—to pursue college, so I had to figure out most things regarding the admissions and financial-aid process on my own.
At times it was frustrating, but when my middle sister, Savanna, decided she wanted to go to Illinois a couple years later, I was glad I was ready to help her on the path I had just learned to navigate.
For my family, and thousands of others, Illinois Commitment makes our dreams possible. I came to Illinois with the desire to be helpful like Aleeya’s doctor, to be strong like Aleeya, and to be driven and empathetic like my mom.
I see my duty as a scientist, and hopefully one day as a genetic counselor, to be able to intervene, inform, and comfort patients so that hope, promise, and a sense of agency will be readily available.
Attending Illinois is not something restricted to people who come from a certain background. Being an Illini means you need a dream and the passion to pursue it. No student should put their hopes aside just because they don’t have the money, resources, or parents who went to college.
Now, I might be getting ahead of myself, but maybe someday, Aleeya, who is only a sophomore in high school, will follow in our footsteps and decide to join us.
I have a feeling Illinois is in her DNA, too.This story was published .