CSUMB Magazine

Inspiring Role Model

Jessica Sierra standing with arms crossed
Photo by: Joan Iguban Galiguis
Jessica Sierra, pictured here on campus at Cal State Monterey Bay, has overcome multiple barriers in her life including brain cancer. The bald spot still on her scalp is a subtle reminder of the side effects she endured during her cancer battle.

By Sophia Huang McKenzie

Published Feb. 2, 2019

Jessica Sierra (B.S., Business Administration, 2013) didn’t set out to be an inspiration and a role model, but that’s exactly what she’s become. She’s broken through barriers, defied statistics, and survived stage 4 brain cancer. Through all her struggles, Sierra has remained remarkably optimistic.

Sierra is featured in a video series called “Sharing Stories” produced by Inspira Studios of Watsonville. The videos are meant to challenge stereotypes, empower others and generate positive change. They can be viewed online at Inspira-Studios.com.

“I’ve known Jessica for a while, and she’s someone I admired. I wanted to feature a strong female, and she’s gone through so much,” said Eugenia Renteria, director of video productions for Inspira and a former CSUMB classmate of Sierra’s.

“She has encountered multiple challenges, and she still has a positive outlook on life. People see her as an inspiration, someone they look up to. She’s an awesome person.”

Overcoming Difficulties

Sierra grew up in Seaside with three brothers in a Salvadorian-Mexican immigrant family. She describes it as a rough upbringing in a working-class community with few resources for young people. She had to overcome serious difficulties including emotional abuse, sexual assault, domestic violence and gang influences.

Despite the challenges, Sierra was able to become the first person from her family to attend college. At CSUMB she worked with “incredible professors and advisors who knew I could go far,” Sierra said. “Coming here as an undergrad was one of the best times of my life. I learned so much about everything I am today, essentially.”

Sierra was active in student government, studied abroad in Granada, Spain, and helped start a campus club which later became the Alpha Phi chapter of Kappa Delta Chi, a national Latina sorority.

I just know there’s so many people out there who are experiencing some sort of hurt, or lack of motivation in doing anything in their lives. If I can get through this, y’all can do whatever you need to do.
Jessica Sierra

She graduated from CSUMB with a bachelor’s degree in business administration and a minor in Spanish, and went on to earn a master’s degree in higher education leadership from the University of San Diego. She intends to pursue a doctorate degree one day.

At CSUMB she learned vital life skills; perhaps most significantly, how to self advocate and “navigate systems,” she said. CSUMB prepared her for success in graduate school, and enabled her to “navigate the whole health care system.”

“I wholeheartedly believe that without my education, I wouldn’t have made it (through cancer treatment),” Sierra said.

Cancer Diagnosis

She was working in higher education and living in San Diego in March 2017 when she was diagnosed with glioblastoma, one of the deadliest cancers and the same type that killed U.S. Sen. John McCain. Her prognosis was just as grim. Sierra was devastated at first after hearing the terrible news. She allowed herself to cry for a week, but then it was time to fight for her life.

Sierra wearing a white mask, receiving brain cancer treatment.
Photo by: Contributed
Jessica Sierra undergoing brain cancer treatment.

As a way to cope and share her experience, Sierra wrote openly, honestly and extensively about her cancer diagnosis and treatment in a blog called Soy Jessica Garcia De Paz.

From her May 12, 2017, blog entry: “I had a massive headache for a month. My ears started to hurt and one day I puked (y’all know I hate puking). My gut told me something wasn’t right, that it might even be a brain tumor. … Got a CT Scan and found out I had a 5.5 cm tumor with lots of fluid in the brain and needed surgery. … Found out about the cancer cells on March 22, 2017. Started the targeted zapping of the cancer cells on April 17, 2017. Here we are now. Thankful to be receiving treatment and be sharing this with you all.”

Miraculous Healing

Surgery and radiation were followed by months of chemotherapy. She had wires and screws in her head and suffered debilitating nausea and pain. She lost her hair from wearing a cap which uses electrodes to kill brain tumor cells. After about a year of treatment, the cancer miraculously didn’t grow back, and she began to heal.

Last fall CSUMB’s TRiO Student Support Services hired Sierra as a retention specialist. TRiO is the U.S. government’s education programs which support students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Just as TRiO counselors once did for her, Sierra now helps students succeed in higher education and beyond. “I just love working with students, and seeing them get their ‘a-ha’ moment,“ Sierra said. “I tell them, ‘You’re good enough for anything that you set your mind to. You’re good enough just the way you are. Reach for the stars and achieve your goals and dreams.’ ”

Sierra said she’s thankful her story speaks to people facing obstacles in life and gives them hope.

“I just know there’s so many people out there who are experiencing some sort of hurt, or lack of motivation in doing anything in their lives. If I can get through this, y’all can do whatever you need to do,” Sierra said.

“Anybody that’s struggling, anyone that has a cancer diagnosis ... just cry, feel those emotions, but it’s important not to stay there. Whatever it is — something’s wrong in your family, something’s wrong at work — you have the power to move forward and keep going.”