UMBC graduate overcomes battle with cancer, now hopes to guide other through rigors of college life

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While this will be University of Maryland, Baltimore County President Freeman A. Hrabowski III’s last graduation — he announced his retirement last August — he will leave the school with a number of leaders who will help the next generation of graduates to push past challenges and earn their degrees.

Catonsville native Jane De Hitta, who had to pause her social work studies due to cancer treatment, is one of those leaders, and will help guide adult undergraduates through returning student programs. She received her bachelor’s degree during UMBC’s commencement, held Wednesday.


“Over the course of the 2021-2022 school year, Jane has quietly distinguished herself within the UMBC community by becoming a holistic supporter of adult learners at our university, especially for folks from historically marginalized communities,” said Amelia Meman, interim director of the UMBC Women’s Center. “She has hosted workshops and discussion groups bringing people together to process through pandemic-related grief and to practice setting boundaries.”

De Hitta, who was initially drawn to UMBC by its strong academic reputation, said the university gives students ample opportunities to learn in and outside the classroom.


“I only heard great things about the [social work] program and the experience of learning here,” De Hitta said.

“I still really enjoyed my experience before I got sick,” De Hitta said. “I had a great class of social work students that I grew up with. I thoroughly enjoyed the social work and psych classes that I was taking, and throughout I felt really supported by my professor.”

De Hitta, 27, graduated from the Community College of Baltimore County in 2015 and transferred to UMBC in spring 2017 to pursue a bachelor’s degree. She’d just completed her junior year at UMBC when, in the summer of 2017, she started to suffer from chest pain and noticed a lump in her chest. She was checked by a doctor, but the doctor could not find anything.

“When I first felt the lump during a self-check, it was almost imperceptible,” De Hitta said. “When I went to the doctor, she said because of my age, 21, she was not worried and sometimes women just have fibrous tissue in their breasts but to come back if anything changes.”

In January 2019, De Hitta was on vacation in Ohio where she was visiting her sister when she felt more severe chest pain than in 2017. The lump in her chest had grown larger. Her mother, who is a nurse, took a look at it and was shocked. Then, a cold rush came over her.

“When my mom felt the lump, her eyes got large and she said we should go see the doctor right away,” De Hitta said.

She was diagnosed with stage two breast cancer on Feb. 11, 2019, two weeks after her 24th birthday.

“I was faced with the question, who am I without having a job or an education,” said De Hitta. “I was asked to put my life on pause.”


She dropped out of college in March 2019 and underwent four months of four types of chemotherapy every three weeks, which took a tremendous toll on her body, she said. After chemotherapy, she had immunotherapy and radiation for the next year.

De Hitta returned to UMBC in fall 2020. She received a scholarship from UMBC’s Returning Women Student/Adult Learners Scholars Program, which supports adult learners returning to complete their degrees.

The Returning Women Student/Adult Learners Scholars Program at the Women’s Center offers monthly workshops and programs that focus on the academic, personal and professional aspects of life as a returning female student and other adult learners. The program covers such topics as career navigation, networking events, financial management and personal well-being and care.

Many UMBC graduates are returning college students or started their journey after beginning careers and growing their families, according to UMBC’s website. De Hitta became a social work intern in the Women’s Center, so she could support other returning students on their journey.

“As I got back into my program, I felt really convicted to finish because I wanted to help people who faced a crisis like me,” De Hitta said. “I wanted to help people navigate systems that are not built for them.”

She left school for a year and a half to fight for her life, and came back to become a leader of those who faced similar challenges. When the students she advises express self-doubt or uncertainty, she reminds them, “You have something to offer to the UMBC community that others don’t. Your lived experience before returning to school will inform what you learn and how you receive that, and also will add to class discussions.”


De Hitta’s parents are Filipino, and she decided to attend UMBC because of the university’s reputations for diversity and academic excellence.

“I think [Hrabowski] has been really wonderful with the steps he has been taking to make the college inclusive and really welcoming to all students from all backgrounds‚” De Hitta said.

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De Hitta said she is looking forward to a research, policy and advocacy career focused on helping others navigate challenging systems to reach their goals. She will be working as a behavioral technician and plans to pursue a master’s degree in social work.

Jane’s ambitions are completely tied to her sense of social justice and her unwavering belief in the worth of each and every person,” Meman said. “In whatever she does, including in her future career as a social worker, Jane makes people’s lives better by being in the trenches alongside them and acting with her whole heart.”

“All my expectations were fulfilled and surpassed through my years at UMBC. The classes and the amazing professors, along with the community I have found there have truly given me confidence,” De Hitta said.

Jane De Hitta, graduating senior for UMBC - is a cancer survivor and college graduate.
Jane De Hitta, graduating senior for UMBC - is a cancer survivor and college graduate.