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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

ODU Biology Graduate Has Relied on ODU 'Family' to Help Her Achieve

Albert Camus wrote that we cannot create experience, we must undergo it.

When Amber Garofalo thinks back to her four years at Old Dominion University, which culminated with her graduation during ODU's fall commencement ceremony on Saturday, Dec. 12, the quote rings true.

"It's been an eventful time, both in and out of school," said Garofalo, who graduated with a 4.0 grade point average in biology, and is currently applying to medical schools. She was named Outstanding College Scholar for ODU's College of Sciences during the fall semester.

When Garofalo arrived at ODU as an 18 year old from Tennessee, she didn't know a soul. How quick did she make a connection on campus? She recently went to Busch Gardens with her admissions counselor from freshman year, who is still a good friend. "This university is incredible. I have had nothing but experiences like that," the 22 year old said.

After her first freshman class, she introduced herself to her instructor, Douglas Mills, senior lecturer of biological sciences. "He was so friendly and outgoing. He took me under his wing and has been a mentor for me."

Mills has been inspired by the effort put forth by Garofalo.

"Amber always has been committed to personal growth and, more impressively, to the growth of others. I'm so appreciative of Amber's successful efforts to support the academic goals of her peers. I hope Amber will visit ODU to continue to provide guidance and motivation to our students," Mills said.

"My hope is that Amber, and our other distinguished alumni such as Cherese Lewis and Devon Taylor, will create an online mentoring program to guide our students as they pursue their goals of professional school or graduate school. I also selfishly hope that Amber will offer me a job when she is President of Stanford or perhaps Vanderbilt University!"

Garofalo said every professor she's had at ODU has reached out to her and been supportive, particularly as she has undergone struggles in her personal life.

Since she was young, Garofalo has known her mother was ill. A serious episode when Garofalo was 15 forced her to take her mother to the hospital, where she was diagnosed with two pulmonary embolisms, and given a slim chance of survival.

After extensive testing, Garofalo's mom was diagnosed with Factor V Leiden (a genetic blood disorder) and Ankylosing Spondylitis (a disease that attacks the joints and tendons). A treatment emphasizing osteopathic medicines helped treat these ailments, which is something Garofalo said is encouraging her to one day become an osteopathic surgeon

"An osteopathic doctor saved my mother's life," she said. "I believe strongly that natural remedies can be a big part of medical care."

This past summer, Garofalo's mother was diagnosed with cancer, so the challenges continue for her family. She credits her faith and her family for helping pull together through the adversity. That faith and family, and her ODU family, was also needed when Amber Garofalo endured another tragedy during her junior year.

Returning from a volunteer trip with the ODU public health program in Guatemala, run by the nonprofit Cross-Cultural Solutions, Garofalo received a text from her long-time boyfriend Zachary Pelsor back in Tennessee.

"He had gotten into a car wreck, was really upset, but couldn't get in touch with me," Garofalo said. By the time she reached his mother, Garofalo learned her boyfriend had died of a cardiac event from an undiagnosed enlarged heart condition. This unexpected tragedy, along with her mom's continued health issues, has only increased Garofalo's interest in osteopathic medicine, and hopes her medical career takes her in that direction.

With her mother's illness and her boyfriend's sudden death, Garofalo focused on her family, and the one thing that made her feel centered and that she was making progress - her schoolwork. She said the faculty in ODU's College of Sciences was incredible.

"I think every one of my professors reach out to me, made sure I was OK, asked if there was anything they could do to help. They were my family, too," she said.

Now that has walked across the stage at commencement, Garofalo is reflecting on a time at ODU that has gone too fast.

"I'm excited for the future, but part of me is going to be so sad to leave. As someone new in the area, who didn't know anyone when I came here, Old Dominion University has become my home."

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