PLNU student fights to stay at her dream school

Cristeal Laughlin always wanted to come to PLNU and wouldn’t let anything stop her from attending her dream school.

Cristeal grew up in Murrieta and her church was affiliated with First Church of the Nazarene on the PLNU campus, so she had been to Point Loma many times over the years due to retreats. She arrived here at PLNU in Fall of 2012. But her health pushed her to drop out of school. She fought hard to get back into PLNU. And now she is back, paying for school all by herself by working two jobs.

“You just gotta keep going. Persevere. Keep trying,” Cristeal said.

Cristeal attended PLNU for one semester. She had a job on campus with Steve Riddle in the athletic department. Halfway through her freshman semester, she got another job with her current boss that she said was a gift from God. That job is with a realtor. She started out handing out flyers for the company but was recently promoted to assistant for a realtor.

During that first semester, Cristeal’s life changed.

“I was diagnosed with precancerous tumors, which basically means that I grow tumors,” Cristeal said. “They hadn’t turned into cancer yet but if you leave them in my body they can eventually turn into cancer. And because of the largeness of the tumor it would be extremely aggressive. When I found it, it was probably the size of a dime and within a month and a half it was the size of a golf ball.”

No one in her family has had this cancer and the odds of her contracting it were very rare.

The doctors informed her that things did not look good and she began preparing for the worst.

“When I was dealing with that I was all alone,” Cristeal said. “I was two weeks into my freshmen year so I didn’t have a lot of friends.”

She did meet one girl on her hall that she befriended in the first few weeks at PLNU named Jade Goodwin who would accompany her to doctor’s appointments.

“You don’t expect an 18 year old to get breast cancer,” said Goodwin. “What do you say to someone?…She’s doing it on her own and I don’t even know how. She’s just amazing.”

Then the doctors found that the tumors were benign but needed to be removed. Cristeal finished her first semester and then took a semester off of school for medical leave. The tumors were removed and she was free of cancer and enrolled to complete a summer session at PLNU. After that session, the medical bills became too much and she was forced to completely drop out of school.

“I thought that I was done,” she said. “I thought that God just did not have this in the plans for me. I’ve left this school twice now. I gave up and I was throwing a temper tantrum.”

When she returned back home to Murrieta, she decided to move in with her best friend since sophomore year of high school and her family, for about a year and a half. She took a full time job as a nanny and worked 60 hours a week. She also got an internship at her church to keep busy.

“I fought cancer by myself in college at 18 and now I’m almost 21 and I no longer have fear about it,” said Cristeal. “I’ve now been in remission for two and a half years.”

As a precaution, Cristeal goes in for check-ups every couple of months. Because of that, she wants to get financially stable and in a position where if this were to happen again, it wouldn’t completely change her life in such a dramatic way as it did before.

In part because of her experience with cancer, Cristeal wants to be a nurse. She believes she can help others overcome because she understands what they are going through.

“I want to use my story to help other people in that kind of situation – I know how scary this is, but this is what can happen and I’m living proof of that,” she said. “You can get out of this and be completely fine. Yeah, there is a possibility it can come back but that’s no reason to live in fear.”

Her hard work and growing independence eventually pushed Cristeal to make the decision to return to PLNU.

“This is home to me,” Cristeal said. “About four to five years ago, my father passed away and his memorial was down the street from this school. So this place has so much history and sentimental value to me that I feel at home here. There is just a sense of being comfortable that I don’t have anywhere else.”

Cristeal left PLNU majoring in theology and Christian ministries, her second choice, but this time, she only wanted her first choice, nursing.

Cristeal filed for FAFSA and applied for PLNU when she realized she could afford it. However, she would have to pay for it herself and would receive little to no help due to her family’s financial situation.

“This semester, we had about 53 transfer students begin at PLNU, but Cristeal isn’t considered a transfer student, since she was a former PLNU student — she’s a readmit,” said Shannon Hutchinson, the director of undergraduate admissions, via email. “Readmit students (students who were here, left for whatever reason, and want to come back) are a top priority for us — we want students to finish their degrees! There were 16 readmits this spring.”

Coming back, Cristeal found that the nursing program didn’t allow sophomores to switch their majors to transfer into the program. So Cristeal took matters into her own hands.

“In hindsight, I was very idiotic in how I approached this,” Cristeal said. “I just emailed the nursing school. I didn’t even send in an application like you’re supposed to; I didn’t know there was one. I told them my story. I said I was diagnosed with cancer so that’s why I left the first time, then I couldn’t afford anything because of all of my cancer bills, so I left the second time, but now I want to come back.”

In order to transfer into the nursing program, students have to complete all their nursing pre-requisite classes, said Hutchinson.

“Students apply to PLNU, like a regular transfer, and also apply to the School of Nursing,” Hutchinson said. “PLNU freshman pre-nursing majors are given first priority in the process and transfer nursing students are considered for admission after them.”

Cristeal was set on this program, but got an email back from the head of the program, Barbra Taylor, saying transfers aren’t usually accepted into the program.

“I met the dean [Taylor]…and she said we don’t do this, but we want you to succeed because we think your story is awesome,” said Cristeal.

Taylor said if Cristeal was willing to step up to the challenge, then she was more than welcome in the program.

“The curriculum in the School of Nursing at PLNU provides the necessary foundation for the nursing student to enter the profession,” said Taylor via email.

Cristeal moved from Murrieta down to San Diego the first week of January. She currently lives with her cousin and uncle who live about thirty minutes away.

“I love it though,” Cristeal said. “It’s so worth it because I love living down here. I love the atmosphere. I love the culture and I love the people here.”

Cristeal said she is not worried about financial problems anymore.

“I know God is going to provide,” she said. “He’s given me a peace.”

Cristeal’s friends agree that she is always in the highest of hopes and is looking forward.

“She just doesn’t complain about her life. She always had this strength,” said Goodwin.

Cristeal still works two jobs and runs her own photography business called Cristeal Felien Photography to make an income, but has learned to juggle her responsibilities.

“I make time. I’m very strategic in how I plan things,” Cristeal said. “Both my jobs I get to pick my hours… so it’s been really difficult to plan everything but I have everything worked out to a tee. It’s taught me time management.”

Her plan now is to graduate with her BSN and then starts working in a hospital a few years, and then go back to school and get either a masters or doctorate in nursing. She wants to be a scrub nurse and maybe open her own practice one day.

“In some states, nurse practitioners can open up a practice,” she said. “I like the idea of being my own boss.”

By the end of the summer, Cristeal will enroll in the nursing program. Coming into her junior year, Cristeal couldn’t be more thrilled.

“I’m so ecstatic to be here,” Cristeal said. “I’m pushing myself harder than I’ve ever pushed myself… I’m really happy, I just love the family and the community here… I wouldn’t want to change anything about it.”