First-generation student conquers cancer, starts medical career at CSU

Josh Romero

Fourth-year biochemistry student Josh Romero shares his story at the College of Natural Sciences Scholarship and Fellowship Recognition Luncheon, held earlier this month. 

When Josh Romero first started college, he quickly discovered his priorities were not focused on academics. He was the first one in his family to go to a university, and he didn’t feel quite ready to be a college student. But before he could consider what to do, he received other serious news: a diagnosis of stage 3b testicular cancer, which had also already spread to his abdomen and lungs.

That experience is just part of what brought this now-fourth-year biochemistry student to the stage to share his story at the College of Natural Sciences Scholarship & Fellowship Recognition Luncheon earlier this month.

“As a nontraditional, Hispanic, first-generation college student who is also a father, I have had to work very hard to accomplish what I have today,” he told the audience at the event. But, he said, “I believe that education is the best investment that one can make – and that education makes anything possible.”

Patient to researcher

After his diagnosis, Romero entered intensive treatment, including chemotherapy and surgeries. When he came out of it, he was given a clean bill of health. But he soon had another big life event looking him in the eyes: his wife was expecting their first child. So, to help provide for his growing family, he took a job in a warehouse, where he worked in -30 degree temperatures lifting 30,000 pounds of goods by hand each day.

He knew, however, that to really do right for himself and for his family, he needed to find a way to continue his education. So he enrolled at Aims Community College in his hometown of Greeley, Colorado, to become a firefighter. As part of the program, one of his requirements was an EMT course. This class opened his eyes to the possibility of helping others – from the medical side that had been such a huge help in his own life.

So he made a radical decision: he quit his job, took a significant pay cut working a part-time job at Medical Center of the Rockies in Loveland, and applied to Colorado State University here in Fort Collins to study biochemistry.

“That was a scary move with a newborn daughter,” he said. But “I knew that my future career belonged in medicine.”

As part of his degree program at CSU, he obtained a research fellowship over the summer, working at the CU Denver Medical School. There, he was able to perform real-world clinical prostate cancer research. And in an incredible twist, he said, “I worked with the same physician who did one of my surgeries when I was going through treatment.”

Crucial votes of confidence

As a full-time student in the College of Natural Sciences, Romero has received the Myron Brown Ludlow Scholarship, the Alok Mehta 9-11 Scholarship, and the David E. Fahrney Undergraduate Scholarship in Biochemistry to support his studies.

“I could not have done this without the support of scholarships,” he said of his achievements here. “The money that I have received has allowed me to focus on school while supporting my family. In addition to financial support, the scholarships that I received let me know that you believe in me,” he said to the donors in the audience. “Knowing that I have your support has given me the confidence in myself to achieve my full academic potential.”

This May, Romero will at last have his bachelor’s degree after his long journey. But that is not the end of the educational road for him. He is currently applying to M.D./Ph.D. programs to become an oncologist and translational cancer researcher.

“Your commitment to helping us succeed has been a huge influence in our lives, and you allow us to be the best students that we can be,” he said at the event. “And the incredible education that we are receiving will, in turn, allow us to pay it forward to future college students who also dream of achieving a higher education.”