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Against all odds: JSU alum overcomes academic difficulties while defeating cancer

(JACKSON, Miss.) – Jackson State University recent graduate Christopher Salley is “blessed” with a thriving career at the Mississippi Department of Transportation, but “life hasn’t always been a crystal stair,” the 34-year-old colon cancer survivor said.

“During my senior year of high school, I started working the night shift full time, and I missed entirely too many days of school,” the Florida native said. “My principal called my mom and explained that because of my vast amount of absenteeism she had to withdraw me, or they would be forced to put me out.”

So, at age 18, Salley discontinued his studies and pursued full-time work. The following semester Salley decided to return to school, but he admits, “I was young, lazy and irresponsible, so I stopped going again.”

A decade passed and Salley found himself unemployed and re-evaluating his life choices. “I remember thinking, the only way that I can progress and have more of what I need to become successful is to go back and get my high school diploma.”

He continued, “I decided to take my GED without prior classes or practice tests. I dropped out at 18 years old. So, at 27, I wanted to see where I was without studying so that I would know exactly what areas I needed to work on. I took the test on a Friday, and when I checked my mailbox the following Monday, my GED transcript and certificate were in there. I passed the test on my first attempt, and that is when my journey to Jackson State began.”

Salley then enrolled at a local community college where he attained a 4.0 grade-point average. The following year he transferred to Mississippi State University, and by mid-semester he began to fall ill.

“I didn’t know what was going on because I hadn’t had any prior issues with my body,” Salley said. “I was feeling severe abdominal pain, losing weight rapidly, and there was a lot of blood when I went to the restroom.”

His symptoms forced him to withdraw from college before the semester ended so that he could return home to consult a doctor. “I got home in October, and by December my doctor diagnosed me with Stage III colon cancer.”

Furthermore, he said, “Shortly after my diagnosis, I started chemotherapy and radiation treatments. I told myself that people go through things all the time, and despite their circumstances they prevail.”

After starting chemotherapy and radiation treatments, Salley tried to return to college “but it was just too much on my body.” During his second attempt to continue his collegiate studies, he developed a spinal infection while taking a lower dosage of chemotherapy and was forced to withdraw again.

“When I was finally able to return, Mississippi State gave me issues with my financial aid. On their end, all they saw was me enrolling and withdrawing from classes each semester,” Salley said. “Initially, they didn’t know about my medical issues, and after informing them I still felt disappointed that they didn’t try to work with me. I was mainly upset because I felt like they should have wanted to help a 4.0 student.”

After not being able to return to Mississippi State to complete his degree, Salley pursued enrollment at Jackson State University. He said, “I wish I would have known that I could have gone to Jackson State when I first received my GED.”

Sally attributes “youth and ignorance” to his assumptions that he had to attend a community college after receiving a GED. “I had never taken the ACT, so I thought starting at a four-year university was unrealistic. If I could do it all over again, JSU would have been my first choice.”

Setbacks have been far too familiar in the Florida native’s life. Upon acceptance to JSU, his admission was deferred yet again due to having to re-learn how to walk and deal with other issues.

Once he was cleared of all medical restrictions, Salley, again began his quest for a college degree in accounting. “I was an older, non-traditional student that had been put further off my path by an illness for periods of time; I would get discouraged.” He credits his professors in the College of Business for staying positive and putting him in touch with people who could help with internship and employment opportunities.

After an extensive journey at JSU, Salley earned his bachelor’s degree in December 2018.

“Cancer is just a word, and words have only as much power as you give to them. I believe that God is victorious, so I wasn’t going to allow cancer to become the burden of my life. Everybody has things that they have to go through, whether it’s physical, mental or spiritual. … You have to go through to get through, and that’s exactly what I did.”