Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2021 graduates.
For most people, graduating college caps off several years of hard work and perhaps some sleep deprivation.
For Arizona State University student David Lew, graduation is all that and more. Since 2014, Lew has been battling stage 4 medullary thyroid cancer and undergoing chemotherapy treatments.
A working comedian, Lew’s motto is “If you don’t laugh, you don’t heal.” That mantra may have saved his life. Currently cancer-free, this proud dad and husband now works to help others reduce their stress and anxiety, having founded #BeThePOP — “Be the Purveyor of Positivity.”
Lew, who lives in Fairfield, California, in the Bay Area, is earning a Bachelor of Arts in film and media studies via ASU Online this spring. Completing the degree signals that he has overcome much. It also means that he is one step closer to being the man — and the dad — he wants to be.
We spoke to Lew about what it was like to take on the challenge of returning to college during such a difficult time.
Question: What was your “aha” moment when you realized you wanted to study in your field?
Answer: For as long as I can remember, I have loved and consumed all forms of media. In high school, I thought I would go to film school and be a film director, but life had other plans. I gave up on my college education for over a decade. Then in 2014, I was diagnosed with stage 4 medullary thyroid cancer. In that same year, I married and then we found out we were having a baby. I decided it was important to me that my daughter see her dad graduate college, especially since my wife was working on her journey through nursing school. My wife and I researched schools, and I fell in love with ASU.
Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?
A: I started my college journey at Solano Community College in September 2001. I was 18 years old. Here I am 20 years later, and I’m graduating from Arizona State University. I point that out because I learned that “it’s not always easy, but it’s always worth it!” I also learned that group projects are even more difficult online!
Q: Why did you choose ASU?
A: Their approach to higher education piqued my interest. They seemed to be constantly innovating their approach to online higher education. The reason I stayed at ASU was because of their constant support; huge shoutout to [English’s Associate Director of Academic Services] Linda Sullivan for dealing with my constant emails and advisement appointments! Besides the work I put in, without Linda, I would not be graduating.
Not to mention ASU has the best school colors out of any college! I found a school that matched my yellow glasses!
Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?
A: I would have to give a shoutout to [Instructional Designer] Andrew Salcido. Professor Salcido taught me the importance of a professor paying attention to a student who desperately wants to succeed, while also recognizing that the student needs a little assistance and some guidance. I took his class when I was feeling my worst. I was down to 135 pounds and I had zero energy for day-to-day tasks, let alone a college course. During the course he checked in on me and answered my questions almost immediately. Years later, he and I are still in constant contact and I consider him a friend. I had hoped the graduation ceremony would be in-person because Professor Salcido told me he’d be there to watch me graduate.
Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?
A: “Do what others won’t to have what others don’t.” It’s all about the follow-through. I had someone along the way tell me, “Regardless of where you are in your educational journey, you can do it.” It’s all about the work you put in and the sacrifices you are willing to make. As a stand-up comedian, traveling and performing, I have had to take my laptop and books to shows! I would do my discussions and exams between shows or after shows. You would also definitely find me in the airport, MacBook plugged into an outlet, working on my discussion responses.
Q: What was your favorite spot for power studying?
A: Give me a good pair of noise-cancellation headphones and anywhere can be my study spot! I’ve studied in bars with my AirPods Pro in both ears. It helps to have a favorite Spotify playlist (Lo-Fi study beats is my go-to) so you can tune out the world.
Q: What are your plans after graduation?
A: Too many to list! After attending ASU’s Film Spark workshop in December, I am collaborating with other ASU students to write and produce a short film. I’m also getting back to performing stand-up with my first club dates booked since the beginning of the pandemic. I’m excited to get back out there and perform in front of a crowd. I’m also in talks to work with Blueprint Medicines (manufacturers of the chemotherapy that has helped me in my cancer journey) to begin making public appearances on their behalf to share my success story with their treatment.
Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?
A: Picking one is difficult, but homelessness is a huge concern to me, as well as financial burdens that weigh down everyday citizens. I would use the $40 million to fund universal basic income pilot programs. UBI is a government program in which every adult citizen receives a set amount of money on a regular basis. The goal of a basic income system is to alleviate poverty. Studies have shown with a $500 stipend each month, individuals paid bills, bought groceries, purchased kids' clothing. It’s a “trickle-up economy,” helping the very citizens that make our country so great.
Former presidential candidate Andrew Yang first championed this cause during his run for president, but it has been around for decades. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was championing a guaranteed income program when he was assassinated.