For many people, a cancer diagnosis would prevent them from achieving lifelong goals. For 4-H alum Angelina Mangiardi, 26, however, her diagnosis at age 19 gave her more determination to reach her aspirations, set her on a path to her dream job at a nonprofit, and helped her pursue a life consistent with her values. Over the summer, she shared her story with current 4-H’ers as part of the Career Exploration Series via Zoom.
Growing up on a farm in Pittsfield, MA, Angelina joined 4-H at eight years old. She started out showing animals and making crafts. When Angelina became her club’s president, she learned to work on a team, create meeting agendas, and facilitate conversations. While 4-H provided her with leadership experience, her drive was all her own. “A lot of my speaking skills I gained through 4-H and visual presentations,” explained Angelina. “I would present on silly things, like towel origami, just to get comfortable speaking in front of people.”
After high school, Angelina left rural Western Massachusetts for New York City, where she pursued a degree at the Fashion Institute of Technology. It was in January of her second year that she learned she had Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
While in treatment at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Angelina had time to think about what she wanted her future to look like. “What is the next step? What makes me happy? What is the next thing I could do that would give me purpose?”
Angelina knew that she wanted to return to her 4-H roots and spend time connecting with others outside. To begin, she decided to pursue a degree in Environmental Science, Policy, and Social Change at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. And she completed her college application from her hospital room.
While researching resources for cancer patients, Angelina stumbled upon First Descents, an organization that provides outdoor adventures like rock climbing and whitewater kayaking for young adults aged 18-39 impacted by cancer and other serious health conditions. When Angelina joined First Descents for rock-climbing in June 2015, she experienced a life-altering week. It was one of the first times she not only met people her own age with cancer, but also began to perceive herself differently. “People see you as capable and you’re not treated as a patient, but as someone who can do physical things,” she said.
In 2016, Angelina’s love of travel led her to study abroad in Tanzania , where she studied wildlife management and researched vultures. While in Tanzania, she also climbed the 19,341ft peak of Mount Kilimanjaro, a huge accomplishment for someone who was treated for cancer not two years before.
Angelina then joined AmeriCorps, an organization focused on public service work. She first traveled to Fairbanks, AK, where she spent seven months with the US Fish & Wildlife Service, running science camps and developing lesson plans for youth in grades K-12.
Angelina also worked as the Farm-to-School Coordinator at an immersion school on the island of Kauai in Hawaii. where she grew fresh food and developed a lunch program, teaching youth about nutrition and agriculture. While teaching the children, she also found herself enlightened. “Any experience you gain, traveling or studying, helps you figure out more about yourself and the world you’re in,” she explained at this summer’s Zoom session.
At the back of her mind, Angelina remembered her transformative experience with First Descents, based in Denver, Colorado. “First Descents was where I experienced so much joy and healing myself,” she explained. “I started wondering how I could give back to them.”
As luck would have it, two days after her AmeriCorps service in Hawaii ended, she saw a job for a Program Coordinator on the organization’s website. She applied and was offered the job. In her role as a Program Coordinator, Angelina registers participants, follows up on medical paperwork, and soothes aspiring adventurers’ anxieties. She also makes program changes and develops adaptability guides for participants with a wide range of abilities and at all different points of treatment.. “I’m granted a lot of creativity and flexibility in my role,” said Angelina.
As for the future, Angelina intends to remain at First Descents for the foreseeable future. While oncology and Multiple Sclerosis programs have been put on hold due to the pandemic, Descents saw a need and recently launched trips for healthcare workers impacted by COVID-19.
Angelina has also revisited her early dreams and is once again pursuing her degree at the Fashion Institute of Technology online. She has an interest in studying adaptive clothing and seeing how the fashion industry can intersect with cancer, inspire people, and be inclusive of all different types of bodies. It may seem like a big ambition, but Angelina is ready. “If cancer and First Descents taught me anything, it’s that there will be times in life when I feel frozen by fear, but if I take one more step anyway, I can challenge myself to do things that seemed impossible at the start.”