Courtney Dunar’s wish is to spend time in a residential apartment on a college campus. She’s eager to meet other first-year students at the late August orientation sessions, make new friends, and join a club. She looks forward to conversations both academic and fun or to take a selfie so she can share her smiling face on a social platform on university grounds.
Dunar, 19, will attend University of San Diego, her No. 1 college choice, this fall and she’s ready now, even though the first classes aren’t until Sept. 3.
She attended the first of several USD Summer Send-Off events on June 14 and, two days later, she returned to campus to have lunch at the La Gran Terraza restaurant. Accompanying Courtney were her parents, Erik and Natalie, siblings James and Sophie, grandparents Jack and Carol Hurlbert, aunt Jennifer McKinney and cousin Alexis McKinney. They arrived in style, too, courtesy of a stretch limousine.
But to understand Dunar’s excitement to be at USD and for the next few months move along quickly is to know she’s focused on putting the last four years in the past.
Near the end of her freshman year in 2010 at Clairemont High School, Dunar was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia (AML), a rare type of leukemia that current American Cancer Society research says is more often found in adults over 45 and more so in men than women.
Nevertheless, she immediately underwent rigorous chemotherapy for several months before returning to school to resume her life as a top student, soccer player and an avid beachgoer.
Then came August 2012. Prior to the start of her senior year, the cancer returned. This time, Dunar needed a bone marrow transplant. It happened in November 2012 when the matching donor, a 58-year-old east coast woman, Karen, dropped everything to give a complete stranger 3,000 miles west a new lease on life.
A face-to-face meeting between Courtney and her donor is slated to happen later this summer, the family said, when Karen is in San Diego for a convention. While it will undoubtedly be a major celebratory moment, the transplant was a true patience process for Dunar.
“Every transplant is so different,” she said. “It’s just a matter of how your body handles it.”
The Dunars were told to expect 100 days of isolation after the transplant and that the first few weeks would be most critical. That 100-day estimation, however, varies. In Dunar’s case, it was 450.
But she’s 100 percent focused on being a USD student this fall. The limo ride and lunch on campus was a small part of another aspect of her recovery and desire to attend college. The local Make-A-Wish Foundation granted her an education wish, a scholarship that will ease her first-year tuition costs.
Joining the Dunars at lunch was Vanessa Ruderman, a local Make-A-Wish volunteer who has been in constant contact with the family since 2010 when the possibility of a wish was first extended.
“I’ve kind of had my wish in my pocket these last four years,” Dunar said. “I wasn’t ready then (in 2010).”
After the 2012 relapse, a conversation Courtney had with her primary oncologist brought up the fact that she’d not decided on a wish yet.
“That’s when she suggested, ‘Why not make your wish about school?’” Dunar recalled. “College was something I definitely wanted and it was where I saw my life going forward. It became an encouragement thing, a motivator for me and a huge gift at the end of the treatments.”
The Make-A-Wish Foundation made it happen. “It’s a perfect wish because she wants it for all the right reasons,” Ruderman said.
Monday’s visit also included a campus welcome by Student Affairs Vice President Carmen Vazquez and Noelle Norton, dean of USD’s College of Arts and Sciences. Norton presented Dunar with a letter stating she’ll be in the “Change” Living Learning Community (LLC), one of nine first-year student residential groups. Dunar’s preceptorial course is with Biology Professor Richard Gonzales. Dunar said her initial academic major interests are biology or chemistry and a desire to work in the medical field.
“We’re so happy, so glad to see her get to the next part of her life, from high school and now onto college and adulthood,” Courtney’s father, Erik, said.
She knows, too. She’s ready.
— Ryan T. Blystone