Howling Success: Persevering Through a Non-Traditional NC State Experience
Despite her diagnosis of breast cancer and mastectomy surgery during the last year, Hakima Harris earned her undergraduate degree, completed extensive research on Castilian language, and maintained a high GPA while also juggling personal responsibilities as a wife and mother.
Entering the fall 2018 semester, Hakima Harris braced for a difficult academic year. She had committed to a yearlong research project on Castilian Spanish, and she was taking her first graduate level course. On top of that, she would continue to juggle her responsibilities as a full-time college student and full-time wife and mother.
Harris faced adversity head on, and the semester was off to a great start. But just when she thought life couldn’t throw her any more challenges, she received her biggest curveball yet when her doctor diagnosed her with breast cancer that October.
“It struck me really hard during what I thought was one of the most beautiful times of my life,” Harris recalled. “But, I decided not to quit. I decided I was just going to take things slowly and focus on my recovery, but also continue to focus on my studies.”
Rewriting the Script
In the early days following her diagnosis, Harris and her family struggled to process the news. She grappled with depression, and relied heavily on support from her family.
“My husband is my backbone, and when everything was confirmed he did not influence my decisions about my treatment or anything,” Harris said. “He told me that we would go through this together, and he will be there for me and our daughter forever. In times when I was very down with everything, he was the one who lifted my spirits by telling jokes or just giving me that much needed hug.”
Harris’ 12-year-old daughter was particularly distraught when she learned the news, but she has also been one of her strongest advocates.
“The days that I felt good, we spent as much time together and made as many memories as we could,” Harris said. “We prayed together, we ate together, and it was tough. I had to show her that I was strong, and she tried to show me that she was strong when in reality we both were struggling. What we did is try to change the cancer diagnosis from a death sentence to an opportunity to get closer, and we did.”
As time went on, Harris started to accept her condition and became more hopeful for recovery. Throughout the process, one of the things that motivated her most was her education and her dream of becoming a college professor.
“Staying busy was basically how I escaped any depression,” Harris said. “I had to realize that yes, I have cancer, but I’m not dying, and if I do die, I will die doing what I love, which is teaching.”
Returning to School
Harris had mastectomy surgery in February 2019, and she has been steadily recovering since. However, the road to recovery was not an easy one.
“My body didn’t work the same as it did before,” Harris said. “Sometimes I would have mental gaps and couldn’t think or remember things as clearly. It’s like my brain would just cut off, and I would get so mad at myself and irritated by the situation. But I had to remind myself that it wasn’t normal surgery, and my body was still healing.”
Despite the additional obstacles and occasional mental gaps, Harris excelled academically and maintained a high GPA throughout her treatment and recovery. She resumed her duties as president of Sigma Delta Pi, the Hispanic honor society, and successfully completed her research project on Castilian Spanish alongside Jim Michnowicz, a professor of Hispanic linguistics, which explored the roots and evolution of Castilian Spanish.
Harris’ research was supported by her participation in TRIO’s Ronald E. McNair Scholars Program. The scholarship is a federally funded TRIO program that provides low-income, first-generation, and underrepresented minority students with undergraduate research opportunities and assistance with applying to graduate school.
Trisha Jackson, academic and research coordinator for TRIO, was Harris’ academic coach for the 2019-20 academic year and nominated her for the Howling Success Award from the Division of Academic and Student Affairs.
“Hakima has overcome so many challenges during her time at NC State,” Jackson said. “She’s remained dedicated and committed to her education, and has even supported the education of her family members in her home country of Morocco. Therefore, I believe Hakima is the definition of a Howling Success!”
Starting a New Chapter
Harris has now completed her cancer treatment and also completed her undergraduate studies at NC State. Against all odds, she graduated on time in May with a degree in Spanish literature and teaching and is now preparing to enter graduate school at NC State, where she will also work as a teaching assistant this fall.
As a speaker of five languages herself, Harris loves learning about languages and cultures around the world and sharing that passion with others.
“I enjoy showing students how people do certain things in other countries, like what they eat or how they might host a party,” Harris said. “I love helping them explore the differences—and the similarities—between cultures. Even something like comparing a school calendar can give a lot of insight about a society. I love bringing that diversity to the classroom through language studies.”
Harris has learned a lot about American culture in the last four years as well. In particular, she now understands the “hype” around college sports.
“I first came to NC State because they had the program that I needed and it allowed me to stay home and take care of my family,” she said. “For those reasons alone, it was the perfect fit for me. But when I got here, I found out so much about the university’s culture and bought into the hype around Wolfpack nation, and I just love it to death.”
As she reflects on her journey through cancer, Harris is also grateful for the support she received from her Wolfpack family.
“I’ve had excellent teachers and advisors, and for the way that I learn I don’t think it can be compared to other schools,” Harris said. “When I’ve gone to conferences and met students from other places, it always reminds me just how well prepared I am and what a great choice I made.”