Succeeding at Rowan--and in life: Two-time alumnus, a NASA engineer and cancer survivor, to address incoming freshmen during Convocation

Confesor Santiago III isn't your average young alumnus. Getting cancer has a way of kicking everything up a notch.

Confesor Santiago III isn't your average young alumnus. Getting cancer has a way of kicking everything up a notch.

"When I got cancer, I went from being scared to being strong," says Santiago, 28, a two-time Rowan University graduate--and aerospace engineer--who will give the annual Convocation address to the University's freshman class on Monday, August 29, at 10:30 a.m. in Esbjornson Gymnasium.

"I want to tell the students that trying things come up sometimes. Things happen in life and you've got to be resilient and not give up."

Two years ago, Santiago was in the throes of a successful career with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. He underwent nine months of chemotherapy and today is cancer free.

During his treatments, the self-described "innovative thinker" founded Cancer Zero, a non-profit organization that helps people who undergo treatments deal with the emotional, physical and spiritual issues associated with cancer.

The goal of the foundation, says Santiago, isn't to raise funds for research. That's vitally important work, but so is helping patients maintain some sense of normalcy in their lives as cancer turns their world upside down, he notes.

"Through Cancer Zero, we're helping a lot of people in little ways," says Santiago. "When you find out you have cancer, the ‘normal life' is what helps you get through."

Santiago's foundation raises funds to provide patients with simple comforts: rides to treatments, a quick trip for water ice, or gift cards for new clothes. Many patients lose or gain weight during treatments and wearing clothes that fit can greatly improve a patient's mindset during trying times, he notes.

Santiago says he was blessed to have a strong support system during his treatments. Through Cancer Zero--"It's a mindset, a culture," he says--he offers the same types of supports to other cancer patients.

"Most people who are diagnosed with cancer become survivors. I'm Exhibit A," Santiago says. "Through the foundation, I get to talk to people, to encourage them. When you get cancer, the problem is internal. It affects your emotions, your spirit. It's tough."

Santiago earned his bachelor's degree from Rowan in computer science, with a minor in mathematics, from the University's College of Liberal Arts & Sciences in 2005. In 2007, he earned his master's degree in electrical and computer engineering from the College of Engineering.

His graduate helped Rowan earn its first U.S. patent. Santiago and Computer Science Professor Adrian Rusu invented WebGPS, a software technology that simplifies web browsing. The patent, which took five years to receive, was awarded to the University earlier this summer.

Upon his graduation from Rowan, Santiago turned his internship with the FAA into a full-time position. He worked on the FAA's Air Transportation System Concept Development Group, Simulation and Analysis Team until March, when he joined the Aviation Systems Division at NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif. His work for NASA involves researching and developing advanced computer automations to safely manage and separate air traffic for increased efficiency and capacity.

The author of dozens of journal articles and papers focusing on air traffic control issues, Santiago credits his Rowan mentors--professors who pushed and inspired him--with helping him achieve academic and professional success.

In his Convocation address to incoming freshmen, he intends to share his story--from Rowan student to alumnus to cancer survivor to aerospace engineer--with honesty and heart.

A traditional ceremony featuring faculty, administrators and staff in academic regalia, Convocation is a way to welcome incoming students and to celebrate the new school year for the University community.

"I'm going to speak about what worked for me," says Santiago, who grew up in Carneys Point and attended Penns Grove High School.

"I'm going to encourage them to step out of their box a little bit. Freshman year is going to be the most fun they've ever had. Rowan is a really fun place to be. But with that comes a lot of responsibility. They have to stay focused."

Being chosen as the Convocation speaker is a huge honor, but not one that makes Santiago uneasy.

"I've addressed government bureaucrats and I've taught Sunday School to fifth- and sixth-graders," says Santiago, a member of The Rock Church of Pitman.

"If you can handle that, you can speak to anybody."