When Samantha Fowler was diagnosed with diabetes at the age of 13, she thought her life was over.
“I didn't think I’d grow up a regular teenager,” she said. “I thought, ‘I’m not going to go to college, because I’m not going to be able to have fun.’ ”
Now 21, the Westchester, N.Y., native who is about to graduate from Endicott College in Beverly spends much of her time advocating for diabetes awareness.
One of her classmates, Jon O’Bryan, 22, of Essex, Vt., has spent most of his free time during his college years helping others as a volunteer firefighter and emergency medical technician with the Essex (Mass.) Fire Department. O’Bryan even keeps his gear in the trunk of his car so he can drive straight to the scene of an emergency.
Before either walks across the stage with 520 other undergraduates at Endicott’s 73d graduation May 24, they will have made a difference in the lives of many.
As a volunteer, ‘You aren’t required to go. But . . . I’m going to do everything I can to get there.’
Brandi Johnson, the associate dean of students at Endicott College, has known Fowler and O’Bryan since their freshman year. Johnson, whom Fowler affectionately calls “Mom,” took both students on alternative spring breaks and interacted with them regularly throughout their time at Endicott.
“From their start here, they were automatic rock stars,” she said. “They engulfed themselves in Endicott in a positive manner.”
Fowler, a psychology major with a focus in special education, regularly organizes fund-raisers for diabetes research. A portion of all the money raised this year by Endicott’s chapter of the psychology honor society Psi Chi — with Fowler as the president — will be going to the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation.
“A lot of my friends will ask, ‘What is diabetes?’ ” said Fowler. “I'm trying to get people more aware that it is so prevalent now, that it’s affecting people that they go to school with.”
More than 8 percent of the US population has diabetes, according to the American Diabetes Association, and Fowler said childhood obesity is causing an epidemic of Type 2 diabetes in the United States.
But what she wants most of all is a cure. “The fact that it's affecting so many people,” she said, “I can't even imagine how much a cure would help.”
On World Diabetes Day during her sophomore year, Fowler invited students, faculty, and even the president of the college to dress in blue and create the symbol for diabetes awareness — a blue circle — on the football field. A crowd of 120 participated.
After she graduates, Fowler will work as a full-time teacher for children with autism on the North Shore. She also hopes to organize another event on the next World Diabetes Day.
Like Fowler, personal experience inspired O’Bryan to help others.
“I had a cousin who got in a car accident,” said O'Bryan. “After that, public safety in general, helping people, has always been an interest of mine.”
O’Bryan started volunteering in Vermont during high school, and the same night he applied, the station received a call for a car accident. He went along to help, and has been answering the call ever since.
A business major with a concentration in accounting, O’Bryan works part-time at Gorton’s of Gloucester, where he’ll move to a full-time position after graduation. But he is also considering working full time as a firefighter in the future.
“As a volunteer, if you’re busy, you aren’t required to go. But if I’m free, I’m going to do everything I can to get there,” said O’Bryan, who usually responds to eight to 10 emergencies a week.
His best friend, David Barrett, 24, of Essex, Mass., who’s also a volunteer firefighter, described O’Bryan as “composed.” But sometimes, O’Bryan said, it takes him a while to be at peace with results of an emergency call.
“One of my first fires that I went to, there were two fatalities; one of them was a child,” said O’Bryan.
“It took me a couple days to understand what happened and realize that’s kind of part of the job.”
Like Fowler, O’Bryan knows the hard parts won’t stop him.
“If anything, it pushes me to work harder and train harder,” he said. “Your job is to do the best you can.”
Tala Strauss, who lived in South Africa and Canada before her family settled in Los Angeles, is interested in a career in photojournalism. She graduates from Gordon College Saturday in Wenham. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.