Terminally ill senior gets special graduation day
Of all the side effects of chemotherapy, Brianna Gainley says the most annoying one for her wasn’t the fatigue or nausea or hair loss, but rather the inability to stay on track in school.
“It was always the constant setbacks,” said Gainley, a computer science major from Burlington who enrolled at UMass Lowell in 2010. “I might be able to get classes done this semester; I might not be able to get classes done this semester. So there would always just be the questioning, the guessing. When do I actually get to graduate? When do I actually get to start a job? When do I actually get to move on to real life?”
For Gainley, graduation day came on Friday, March 18, in a special Commencement ceremony held for her and close to 100 family and friends in University Crossing’s Moloney Hall.
“I wasn’t expecting this celebration. This has just been fantastic,” said Gainley, beaming proudly in her confetti-sprinkled cap and gown as she spent nearly two hours hugging guests from her wheelchair and smiling for photos. “I don’t think I’ve ever taken so many pictures in my life.”
Gainley was diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer called osteosarcoma during the second semester of her freshman year in 2011. She lost her right leg and a lung during the ensuing five-year battle — but never her determination — and she was on track to receive her diploma this May. But on Monday, March 14, her doctors delivered devastating news: The cancer was terminal and she only had a short time to live.
Brianna’s younger sister Tayla immediately contacted the university to see if her degree could be conferred early. Four days later Brianna Gainley became the first member of UMass Lowell’s Class of 2016 to graduate, receiving the honor in a pomp-and-circumstance-filled ceremony that included Chancellor Jacquie Moloney, Provost Donald Pierson and Computer Science Department Chair Jie Wang, all in full regalia.
“The university community is honored to recognize a young woman whose hard work, dedication and perseverance truly exemplify the UMass Lowell spirit,” Moloney said in awarding Gainley’s bachelor of science degree. “Thank you for who you are and what you have accomplished. I can assure you that none of us will ever forget this day.”
“It means the world to her,” said Brianna’s mother, Maureen, her eyes red from tears following the ceremony. “She didn’t give up on school. A lot of people would have said, ‘I can’t do this. This is too much.’ She’d be throwing up, getting sick, tired, and say, ‘Well, I still have to do this test for math.’ And I’m like, ‘How are you going to do that?’ And she’d say, ‘It’s due tomorrow, but the professor’s giving me a little extension.’ And she worked through it all. She really, really worked hard.
“I’m just really impressed with my daughter. She’s someone to look up to. I wish I could have been that way at 24,” said Maureen who, along with Brianna’s father, Frank, is a UMass Lowell alum.
“It’s incredible. It’s a bittersweet moment, for sure,” added Frank, clutching a special program created for the ceremony. “Just the community, the school, the city coming together like this to honor her and give her credit for her degree ... It’s certainly one of the proudest moments you can hope for under any circumstances, but it’s especially more meaningful now.”
By Gainley’s side throughout the ceremony was her new husband, Ryan Hart, a senior electrical engineering and computer science major from Raynham. The couple met their freshman year at the former Eames Hall Honors House.
“We just immediately clicked,” said Hart, who liked how Bri (as she’s known) was “artsy-craftsy, but still a sciency-type person” like himself.
When Gainley returned to campus following eight months of chemo and knee replacement surgery, her friendship with Hart grew and they began sharing an apartment together. Six months later they were dating.
“He’s just an incredibly smart guy,” Gainley said. “We had been talking about getting married, but with everything that’s been going on it was a little bit of a surprise — a spur-of-the-moment kind of thing. But it was fantastic.”
After picking out their rings, Hart said he wanted to give Gainley as traditional a proposal and wedding ceremony as possible.
“We just moved to a place in Burlington, and we have a gorgeous sun room in the back that she really loves, so I set up the whole room yesterday as a wedding,” Hart says. “My dad wheeled her in and I proposed to her and an hour later, after she got ready, we got married.”
Gainley painted her fingernails bright green to match the dress she wore for the engagement. They also matched the floral dress she wore under her robe for Commencement a day later. “It was a double-decker thing,” she said with a smile.
“We’re trying to cross everything off Bri’s bucket list, and this was the big one that I was so sad that I wasn’t going to be able to do for her,” Hart said of the Commencement ceremony. “I’m really glad Tayla was able to pull this together with the university.”
Seizing Every Opportunity
One of Gainley’s favorite computer science professors, Holly Yanco, was overseas in South Korea and could not attend the ceremony in person. But Yanco was still able to congratulate Gainley live via video chat on a laptop, in spite of the 13-hour time difference.
“Professor Yanco has just been an incredible force for me,” Gainley said. “She’s so involved in everything in cutting-edge tech, and she makes sure her students get their hands on it, too.”
That includes a national NASA robotics competition in 2013 in Houston, where Gainley’s team, the Rover Hawks, took first place. Gainley considers it the highlight of her academic career.
“It was such a cool experience to be part of that team,” she said. “I don’t think a lot of people were expecting us to do as well as we did. It was one of those super-cool experiences that you just ... weren’t expecting to win. And when you did it, it was wonderful.”
Assoc. Prof. William Moloney, who called the ceremony “the single nicest thing I’ve seen in my time at the university,” recounted a semester when Gainley asked if she could receive an “incomplete” in his computer science course because she needed to be out for several weeks to have a lung removed.
“I almost fell over. If someone tells me, ‘I need to have a lung removed,’ it’s hard to fathom that they’re even thinking about the fact that they’re going to finish the course,” said Moloney, who had Gainley in three of his courses. “But she was determined. She’s an amazing, amazing person.”
Gainley was just as hard-working outside of the classroom, landing a series of internships and professional work experiences over the past five years that included a student developer position at CodeRight Inc., a dynamic scan engineer position at Veracode and, most recently, a software developer position at Cognition Corporation.
“I really tried to do as much as I could in terms of keeping an internship or keeping some kind of work experience because, even if I couldn’t get the classes done, even if I couldn’t get the grades I wanted in the classes, at least I could still get work experience and still get that kind of thing on my résumé,” Gainley said. “Getting that kind of experience under my belt was very important to me.”
As the Gainley family, which also includes daughters Shaylinn and Marlea, continued to hug guests and commemorate the moment with photos, Maureen marveled at the young woman Brianna has become.
“She’s the strongest women I’ve ever met. She doesn’t cry. Until the most recent news, she hasn’t cried,” Brianna’s mother said. “And with all that she's gone through, she’s still maintained her sweetness and her sense of humor. I don’t know where that came from. I learned a lot from her.”