Megan Degenfelder had so much to do that a physical examination seemed trivial. She was arranging to live and study in China for a year, after all. There was language to learn, packing to do, plans to make. The first semester of Degenfelder’s junior year at the University of Wyoming was under way, too, leaving little time for much else beside rugby and homework.
If the medical check-up hadn’t been required, Degenfelder almost certainly would have skipped it. But, on a pleasant September day in 2009, Degenfelder wandered across campus to Student Health Service to satisfy what she figured would be a formality.
“One of the nurses was like, ‘You have a very large thyroid. Have you ever got it checked out?’” Degenfelder recalls.
When she was selected for the Chinese Ambassador’s Wyoming Scholar (CAWS) Program—established in 2007 through the generosity of the Chinese government and its ambassador to the United States to fund one UW student for one year of study in world’s most populous country— Degenfelder expected she’d have the experience of a lifetime. What she didn’t expect was that the program would save her life.
A small scar on her neck will forever serve as a reminder of Degenfelder’s plight. She was diagnosed with Stage II thyroid cancer following additional testing in January 2010, just days after she had finished her first semester in Beijing, and underwent back-to-back surgeries and several radiation treatments to beat the cancer into remission.
“I would have found out [about the cancer], but who knows when,” she says. “They saved my life.”
Though her parents urged her to forgo the remainder of her CAWS scholarship and stay in Wyoming to recover in the comforts of home, the then-21-year-old Degenfelder was adamant about returning to China. Her life saved, Degenfelder only wanted to go live it to the fullest.
“It was really hard, but I just needed to go back,” says Degenfelder, a graduate of Natrona County High School in Casper and the outgoing president of the Associated Students of UW. “I didn’t want the cancer to define me.”
Struggling with her health during what she calls the “hardest semester of my life,” Degenfelder turned to her rugby teammates, who, remarkably, had sent flowers—from Beijing to Wyoming—when they learned of her cancer scare. “They became my family,” she says. “I couldn’t have gotten through it without my rugby friends. They’re some of the best friends I have in life.”
Soon, Degenfelder hopes to again be in the middle of a scrum with her Chinese friends. She has applied to a few universities in China—including the University of International Business and Economics, where she studied through the CAWS program—to pursue a master’s degree in either international trade or economics.
There is no better place to continue life, says Degenfelder, than in a country that has both captured her heart and stimulated her mind.
“When I was first going to China, I was really apprehensive because it was for a whole year,” says Degenfelder, who led an 11-student UW delegation to China this spring as part of an exchange with Shanghai Normal University and Shanghai University. “I would have never thought that I’d want to go back. I just figured, ‘One year will be plenty!’
“But by the second semester, I loved it and I still do,” she says. “I think that one of the reasons why I love China is because everything’s a challenge—even the smallest of things. You’re always growing, you’re always learning, you’re never taking anything for granted. Through my experience, I just feel like I have grown so much and found a completely different outlook on life.”
She smiles and adds, “I really hope I get accepted and can go back in the fall.”