Three New Leases on Life: Dream Award Scholar Mitch Peterson - Scholarship America

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Three New Leases on Life: Dream Award Scholar Mitch Peterson

By Pam Carlson

Imagine starting college ten years after high school—and diving into Calculus 2, Introduction to Physics and Introduction to Programming the very first semester.

“I spent the first couple of weeks trying to see if I had the grit and ability to hunker down and get into it,” says Scholarship America Dream Award Scholar Mitch Peterson.

Mitch (far right) is one of 11 interns at Quantum Foundry this summer doing research on quantum computing

Mitch’s freshman classwork would be an overwhelming challenge for many students. But for him, it was nothing compared to the circumstances he’d overcome to get there.

At 13, Mitch was diagnosed with osteosarcoma in the right tibia, just below the knee. “It is a pretty serious cancer,” Mitch said. “I had chemotherapy to combat it and then surgery to remove the bone tumor and replace the bone with a cadaver bone. Then everything was good to go.”

At 26, Mitch faced another health complication when he was diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes. He was able to control the disease with a regimen that include running half marathons and exercising 5-6 times a week—until, when he was 29, he started experiencing trouble catching his breath. 

“I was barely getting through the day,” he said. It was a huge change for the physically active Mitch, and doctors quickly discovered how urgent and serious his condition was. After being diagnosed with end-stage congestive heart failure, Mitch was immediately put on an aortic embolism pump and on the list for a heart transplant. Less than a week later, he was told he had a heart.

“My heart failure was caused by chemical toxicity from the chemotherapy I received at 13,” Mitch said. “The surgery took place August 3, 2019. It is pretty rare that happens that quick. People are usually waiting months or even years.”

That day was the beginning of a long steady recovery. “The first year was the toughest. I’ve been lucky not to have huge complications. There hasn’t been anything serious.”

He wrote an anonymous thank you letter to the family of the donor, whose sister responded through the donor network. Mitch learned that the donor of his new heart was just five years older than him, and he stays in touch with the family.

“This was my third lease on life,” Mitch said. After recovering, he started thinking about going back to school. “I always had the desire to go back. Three months after my surgery a friend took me to Diablo Valley College, showed me around, and encouraged me to start there.  That very night I applied.”

Mitch on campus at Stanford where he’ll be a junior in the fall, 2022.

“It was a tough start because I had such a large gap since my previous school, but I did it and have been progressing ever since.” 

Mitch graduated from Diablo Valley College in the spring of 2022. With support from the Dream Award, he is preparing to transfer to Stanford University this fall. Initially focused on computer science, he is leaning toward electrical engineering with the goal of developing medical devices and hardware that will aid in the quality of life for everyone, especially those managing health drawbacks.

“My goal is to become the best possible version of myself,” he said. “A huge part of that for me is giving back to others in need, because I know exactly what it’s like to be in a position you can’t overcome on your own.”

As a first generation college student, Mitch is grateful for the help of scholarships he has received such as the Jack Kent Cooke scholarship and the Scholarship America Dream Award.

Mitch would advise other students “to speak up and reach out for help. Don’t sell yourself short. Apply to things you don’t think you’ll get – shoot for the stars. You might just end up getting it.

“It’s been quite an amazing journey.”

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