In a school full of shining stars, a kid named Sterling may be setting a new standard for brightness, not to mention courage and perseverance. There's no way a little thing like stage 4 lymphoma was going to tarnish his ambitions.
"It's been hard but I love the challenge," said Sterling Velazquez, a senior at the School for Advanced Studies, SAS, at the Miami-Dade College campus in Kendall.
Everyone at SAS takes college-level classes. Students graduate with a high school diploma and an AA degree, and often go on to the nation's most prestigious universities. It's an academically demanding, extremely rigorous curriculum, and it's exponentially harder if you're enduring a brutal chemotherapy regimen.
"Even though he's dealing with an illness, he still shows up to school, doesn't use the illness as an excuse. He's able to obtain stellar grades. He's really an inspiration for everyone here," said SAS Principal Omar Monteagudo.
Sterling received the diagnosis 2.5 years ago, just after he was admitted to SAS. It was stage 4 acute lymphoblastic lymphoma, a horrible form of cancer which, at that stage, is usually fatal.
"It was devastating at first, but a couple of weeks later, I got up and just thought to myself there's no way I'm gonna give up all the hard work that I've been through and just sit in bed all day. So I got up, I went on my computer and started signing up for some classes online. I took calculus the whole year on my own, aced that class," Velazquez said.
The young man aces just about everything. He's taking college calculus, physics, chemistry, English literature, and more. No easy classes in the list. If not for missing some days of school because he had to get chemotherapy treatments, Sterling feels like he would have straight A's right now.
"I love pushing myself through classes like that, and the feeling of satisfaction you get when you get a great score," Velazquez explained. "Dealing with this, I had no idea just how hard things could be and it's something that you can't possibly be prepared for."
His classmates appreciate how hard Sterling's path has been. He doesn't advertise his struggles, but there's no question Sterling's presence inspires his friends.
"He's such an intellectual kid, and seeing that he went through all that and still managed to keep up his academic, it's amazing," said Carlos Vegas, also a senior at SAS.
Classmate Alina Abrantes agrees, "Sometimes you're like, oh, I can't do it. It's too much for me. I'm just gonna quit, and then you see someone like Sterling, pushing himself through all of his problems, which are greater than my problems, at least, and I'm like well, if he can do it, I can sure as hell do it."
Some days, the chemo saps all of his strength, but Sterling wants to be a computer engineer, so he never uses his medical issues as a crutch.
"I didn't want to take advantage of that, so I guess my message is even in your lowest moments just pull through. There's a time when you're going to get through this and you're going to feel just so overjoyed and satisfied that you can come out of this and be a better person," Velazquez said.
The cancer treatments have weakened his legs to the point where Sterling uses crutches, but he keeps moving forward, hoping for an Ivy League future, and he's gaining emotional fortitude with every step of his journey.
SWAG on 6 (Students Working At Greatness) is a new feature on NBC 6 highlighting students who rise against all odds and continue to succeed.