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#NikiStrong One Year Later: Penn State Freshman Back In School Having Beaten Cancer Twice

This weekend marked an important milestone for Penn State freshman Nikolette Nolte, a member of the varsity swimming and diving team. Saturday, September 21 represented one year since she was diagnosed with leukemia, her second bout of cancer, and forced to leave Penn State only weeks after starting college.

However, she had another significant milestone two days later: Her first public announcement that she had once again beaten cancer.

The announcement came in the thick of the semester, Nolte’s first one back at Penn State. Her schedule as a biobehavioral health major, Schreyer Honors Scholar, and student-athlete has been so hectic that she actually forgot to tweet about the one-year anniversary on September 21, so the news came two days later than she had originally planned.

“That one year mark was really monumental for me, because not only have I been able to get back up to State College, take classes, and be a part of the swim team, but I have also beaten cancer twice,” she said.

The leukemia came as a result of the treatment she had undergone while fighting lymphoma in high school. Nolte had just celebrated the one-year anniversary of showing no evidence of disease before her second diagnosis last fall. Shortly afterward, she began to undergo chemotherapy, and after a bone marrow transplant in February, she started her path to recovery. Although she won’t be officially “cancer-free” for ten years, Nolte has not had any evidence of disease since April.

If Nolte’s story sounds familiar, it should. Her second fight with cancer triggered a movement that started with her team at Penn State and quickly made its way across the country. Whether it was rival swim teams like Pitt and Ohio State showing their support or the Penn State football team promoting the cause to its hundreds of thousands of followers, the hashtag #NikiStrong spread and gave Nolte a sense of hope, but also a bit of pride.

“I was shocked and speechless when I saw it happening and while I was just starting treatment and trying to accept what had happened again,” Nolte said. “Seeing the support from my teammates and around the country was insane. I’m so thankful for it, and it helped me get through some really tough times.

“And it also raised awareness for pediatric cancer and how it real it is and how we need more support and funding to find a cure, which made me super proud to be a part of.”

Although she hasn’t shown signs of disease in nearly five months, Nolte didn’t expect to return to school for the fall semester until fairly recently. But given the progress she made over the summer and with modern technology that allows her to keep in touch with her doctors around the clock, she was cleared to return to campus last month and resume her studies. She’s now back to working toward her intended career as a physician’s assistant in pediatric oncology, a field she wants to give back to.

Upon returning to school, Nolte has jumped right into it, taking a full schedule with 16 credits, including the much-dreaded anatomy and physiology class and lab. Even with such a packed course load, though, Nolte has enjoyed getting back to the normal routine of college life. You can sense the enthusiasm and energy rushing through Nolte when you talk to her, even while she explains what courses she has this semester.

“I don’t want to say I’m the happiest person in Happy Valley, but I feel like I am,” she said. “It feels good to be back doing what I should be as a 19-year-old.

“Even taking tests, getting back to those simple things that people take for granted, I’m so excited and thankful to be getting back to them. I know it sounds crazy, but I was so excited for [her first day of class this semester], all the emotions, like the nerves and the anticipation.”

As she continues where she left off last fall, taking all the same classes she was enrolled in at the time of her diagnosis, Nolte has her sights on one other return: to the pool. Due to the extended recovery of her transplant and its side effects, Nolte hasn’t yet been cleared to swim. Eventually, she wants to suit up for the Nittany Lions like she had committed to do out of high school.

But for the time being, she’s remained an engaged member of the swimming and diving team, going to practice, team meetings, and team bonding events and helping coach Tim Murphy recruit. One other thing she said she hopes to do with her team during her four years is dance on stage during Athlete Hour at THON and meet the other fighters and survivors.

All these aspirations that Nolte has for the rest of her Penn State career shouldn’t come as a surprise. When she announced her diagnosis on Instagram last fall, she wrote that she would “be back up to Happy Valley soon!”

And here she is, one year later.

But in spite of the beacons of hope, optimism, and inspiration she might offer with her story and vivacious personality, Nolte remains focused on what other people did to help her through the last year — whether it was or posting her hashtag, accommodating her situation, or just calling to ask how she felt.

“Everyone would check in with me and see how I was doing and how my treatment was doing,” she said. “Knowing that I’m just one person and that there are 45,000+ students here, I’m so grateful for the support I’ve gotten from my coaches, professors, advisors, the financial aid office, Schreyer, and from every aspect there is here. I received so much support and understanding.”

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About the Author

Anthony Colucci

Anthony Colucci was once Onward State’s managing editor and preferred walk-on honors student who majored in psychology and public relations. Despite being from the make-believe land of Central Jersey, he was never a Rutgers fan. If you ever want to know how good Saquon Barkley's ball security is, ask Anthony what happened when he tried to force a fumble at the Mifflin Streak. If you want to hear the story or are bored and want to share prequel memes, follow @_anthonycolucci on Twitter or email him at [email protected]. All other requests and complaints should be directed to Onward State media contact emeritus Steve Connelly.

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