Share Tweet Share Email

NIU grad overcomes obstacles, earns degree

January 8, 2018

Allana Rose

Allana Rose knows how it feels when the odds are against you. What she doesn’t know, is how to give up.

In November 2017, Rose’s quiet courage and perseverance were recognized when she became the first person in more than a decade to receive the Prospatheia Award, an award given by the Department of Electrical Engineering at Northern Illinois University to a senior who has overcome obstacles to achieve success.

“It’s such an honor,” Rose said. “It’s really nice when you’ve been going through a lot to know someone notices.”

Rose, 24, has been through a lot. In 2011, she was entering her senior year of high school in Rockford when she was diagnosed with cancer in her brain and eye. The prognosis was so bad the teenager and her parents planned her funeral.

Doctors in Rockford referred them to doctors in Madison, WI, who referred them to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. Rose said they could tell the cancer was progressing, but no one could positively identify what type of cancer it was.

Neither the diagnosis nor the treatment stopped Rose from pursuing her education. She finished high school and enrolled at Rock Valley College. Her plan to join the military had been derailed by the brain tumor; recalling a childhood fascination with building things, she began exploring engineering.

“My dad was a contractor. I would go with him to job sites as a little girl, and there would be nothing there, then in a month, there would be a whole building. I thought that was amazing,” she said.

After completing her classes at Rock Valley, Rose moved to DeKalb to attend NIU. She was still taking an intense regimen of medication that left her feeling sick most of the time, but she had hope. A course of chemotherapy seemed to knock out the brain tumor – it was still there, but benign. Then she learned her eye was not so fortunate. Just before her second semester at NIU, the eye was removed and replaced with a prosthetic.

Rose was heartbroken, but she remained focused – if she finished her degree and got a good job, she could help her younger siblings attend college and move her family out of the dangerous neighborhood where they lived.

“When I moved away from home it was scary, but the sooner I could finish college the sooner I could get a good job and help my family,” she said. “People say, ‘I don’t know how you did it,’ but it’s not like I had a choice. I just did it. You pick up and you go.”

But Rose’s struggles weren’t finished. As she prepared to enter her final semester, the family received another blow – Rose’s mother was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer.

“One thing I’ve learned from having cancer is as hard as it is for you, it’s worse for everyone around you,” Rose said softly. “I didn’t realize how hard it was until I saw my mom go through it. I look at her and think, ‘How do I stay as strong as you were?’ …Receiving this award really touched my heart. I want to make my mom proud. I want to give her the best last couple of months she could possibly have.”

No one could have blamed Rose for postponing her last semester, but graduation and all that came with it were within reach. She continued to excel at her studies and to lead IEEE, a student organization for electrical engineers.

“Allana Rose has been an inspiration to those who have struggled through the electrical engineering program,” said professor Donald Zinger, one of Rose’s teachers and faculty adviser to IEEE. “Surviving the battle with cancer, she has gone on to be a leader in the IEEE student branch. …Despite all her tribulations, Allana’s cheerful personality continues to shine.”

Rose said keeping busy – with school, a part-time job, IEEE – helped her to deal with her difficulties. When she was elected chair of IEEE, she made it her mission to revive what she said was a fading organization.

“People weren’t coming to meetings, and the group wasn’t doing anything. You’d say ‘IEEE,’ and no one knew what that was. I made it my goal to change that,” Rose said. “It’s been so much fun. There are so many opportunities through IEEE; it’s been amazing.”

Rose’s struggle to adjust to partial blindness inspired her and three classmates to develop their capstone senior design project, a monocular vision driving assistant. It is legal for people blind in one eye to drive as long as the car is equipped with the proper mirrors, she said, but it’s hard – especially for someone who learned to drive with normal vision.

In its presentation, the team said that technologies like blind spot alert systems are hard-wired into expensive cars, but there is no low-cost after-market option for drivers without the financial means to buy a new car. The team developed a portable system that can be installed and removed in any car in less than five minutes. An externally mounted camera and sensors detect objects in the driver’s blind spot and set off a light and buzzer inside the car. The entire system costs less than $200.

Team member Holly Hagemann nominated Rose for the Prospatheia Award. She said she is inspired not only by what Rose has overcome but by her selfless nature and dedication to helping her family.

“What a beautiful person. I think Allana is literally the greatest person I have ever met,” Hagemann said.

Now, Rose is stepping into the future she has worked so hard for. She graduated with her bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering on Sunday, Dec. 17. She purchased a house in a safe neighborhood just a short distance from her new job in the mechatronics division at Bergstrom Inc. Confined by illness for five years, now she is rediscovering the world.

“I love looking at the sky without being in pain and wearing three different kinds of sunglasses,” she said. “Sometimes, walking to class, I’ll stop and stare at the trees because I haven’t seen them in so long. Or I go outside at night and look at the stars and the moon. People take them for granted, but they’re so amazing. I appreciate the littlest of things even more.”

Rose is humbled to be called inspiring, but she is hoping she can motivate her brother and sister to follow her example.

“Going through hard stuff in life makes you stronger. It makes you fight harder,” she said. “Just because something’s hard doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Some days can get really hard. You might not want to try anymore. Just take one day at a time and never, ever, ever, ever give up.”