RIT Professor Teaches a Lesson in Courage




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Rebecca Housel brings more to the classroom than a rich knowledge of literature and the English language. The 32-year-old assistant professor in Rochester Institute of Technology’s College of Liberal Arts teaches her students something about courage and the value of life.

Optimistic and enterprising, Housel has created a life she loves despite physical limitations and an intimate knowledge of cancer. Housel knows first hand how life can be interrupted and works hard to make the most of every day. Diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor at age 20, Housel has overcome setbacks and challenges with an unwavering faith and will, and the support of her husband, Bob, and son, Gary.

This fall, Housel will join RIT as a full-time lecturer in the language and literature department. She plans to launch a writing club and sponsor a creative writing award. She also will present papers at two regional conferences this fall and publish three scholarly articles. In addition, a young adult novel based loosely on her son is due to be published in the next year.

Housel takes none of her achievements for granted. They are hard won. “I was just so exhausted,” she says of her illness. “I couldn’t promote myself, but I was still writing.”

Although the radiation treatment in 1991 fried the golf-ball sized tumor near her motor cortex, it didn’t stop the growth from returning in full force 10 years later. Seizures—as many as 10 a day—marked the five years leading to her second diagnosis.

“I found out on my 30th birthday that I needed a root canal and neurosurgery—How lucky can one girl get?” she says.

The root canal was a small matter. Then came the 17-hour neurosurgery and nine months of chemotherapy. Her recovery was compounded by diabetes, a side effect of the steroid taken to reduce brain inflammation, and a staph infection in her incision.

A monthlong paralysis followed surgery, as it had the first time, and Housel was left without the use of her left side. She credits her husband for holding together their life, for taking care of her, their son and their house while working full time.

Housel was determined to resume working as soon as she could. She had spent the previous three years juggling adjunct teaching positions at area colleges and was contracted to teach eight classes at RIT. She started chemotherapy treatments the day before winter quarter in 2002 and launched into the new term with enthusiasm. The chemo robbed her of coordination and balance, but not her passion for teaching and for connecting with her students.

“You can’t be depressed and curled up in a ball,” Housel says. “You have to keep going.”

Today she moves around with a walker and a brace supporting her left calf, paralyzed from years of seizures. She remains dedicated to teaching and broadening her students’ understanding of life.

“I just love them all,” Housel says. “I just want to help them be good students and to get the best experience.”

And—for herself— she sees her 60th birthday as a coveted prize, an age she is determined to reach.

“Every wrinkle is great,” Housel says. “It’s so fantastic. It’s great to get old. I aspire to be an old lady with a big purse.”

To talk to Rebecca Housel, contact Susan Gawlowicz at 585-475-5061.