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meet nina

years awarded


Jean and Jeanine Spencer Scholar


Scholar Quote: I am on a new path now, healthy, and surrounded by new friends, some old friends, and new experiences.

The shredded rubber footing of the arena was dusty and swirling around me. As my heavy breathing pushed the fine dirt away in waves, reality surged in. Dublin, a heavy-set chestnut gelding, stared back at me with a look that said, “Why are you down there, Nina?” Two seconds ago, we had just finished a jump and I headed one way as he went the other. As I scanned all my limbs, I knew I was not physically hurt, yet the emotions that had been building in me those last few weeks finally found their release.

Three years prior, I had just completed my first horse show at the local fairground. I was never really interested in showing, but I wanted to see if I had what it took to be a competitor. I had done better than I expected for my first show, even earning some blue ribbons. It felt good participating, but the weekend seemed to drain every ounce of energy from my body. I was finishing up spring soccer and 6th grade at the same time, so maybe it was just a lot. However, the fatigue continued. The following week, my doctor ran some tests, and I was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. My long journey had begun.

Between the ages of twelve and fifteen, I was in and out of Golisano Children’s Hospital while my doctor and her team tried to kill my cancer cells without killing me. I had pictures of Dublin, most from our first show, all over my hospital room along with pictures from soccer and my family and friends. I was surrounded by countless people helping me and telling me that soon I would be back in tip-top shape and riding Dublin. As I improved and regained some of my strength, I could not wait to get back to the barn. In August of 2019, I finally got cleared to return to my favorite sport – just two short months before I was declared cancer free and off treatment.

Yet, something was off. I knew riding would be a challenge physically (my muscles and joints had seen better days), but mentally I was starting to see a different path. As I restarted my riding lessons, part of me wanted desperately to be on that horse, but I also felt a sense of what I can only think was nostalgia. It was like coming to the end of a team season or finishing middle school and moving on to high school: I was sad to let go of good times, but all the while excited for a change; to start making new memories. I felt I had to move on and start fresh – which meant leaving Dublin.

That’s why I was crying, sitting in that dusty rubber. This emotional release was my accepting that cancer had changed my life, but it was okay; I was okay. I had spent so long worrying that my diagnosis would define who I was, that I hadn’t realized that it has shaped who I am. It has made me stronger and more aware of life’s struggles, and that it is okay to fall sometimes, as long as you get back up.

I am on a new path now, healthy, and surrounded by new friends, some old friends, and new experiences. I look forward to what lies ahead for me and one day visiting Dublin to tell him all about it.