ASU social work student refuses to yield to adversity

Arturo “Art” Virgen-Sandoval tours Old Main in Tempe

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In 1981, when Arturo “Art” Virgen-Sandoval was 19, he and a friend were cruising along University Drive when his friend pointed in the direction of the Old Main building and said, “That’s Arizona State University.”

Having grown up in Tucson, Virgen-Sandoval had never seen the campus before, though he had always harbored a desire to one day be among the students on its grounds. However, on that day, at that point in his life, he simply thought to himself, “I’m too stupid to go to ASU.”

Now, 34 years later, he is proud to say he will be among the nearly 8,500 undergraduate students who will have their degrees conferred May 11 at Sun Devil Stadium.

His path to that final walk across the stage was not always easy. Just four weeks ago he ran into an obstacle that, for most people, might have delayed indefinitely a dream of graduating from ASU.

But Arturo Virgen-Sandoval is not most people.

Facing down adversity

Virgen-Sandoval had been experiencing severe stomach pains for a few days when he decided to make a visit to the doctor.

After performing some tests and an X-ray, the doctor sent him directly to the hospital, where more tests were performed.

Finally, after many hours of nervous waiting, doctors brought him into a small exam room.

“They looked at me and said, ‘There is a malignant tumor in your intestines, and it’s cancer, and it’s spreading,’ ” Virgen-Sandoval said. “So I looked at them and I said, ‘OK.’ I guess they were expecting another reaction.”

His doctors advised him to put everything on hold – including his studies at ASU.

But Virgen-Sandoval had already decided nothing was going to keep him from walking across the stage at ASU’s commencement.

“I told them, ‘I’m taking off all these things, all these tubes, off me right now. You are not going to keep me from graduating from ASU.’ ”

Always moving forward

Virgen-Sandoval always knew he wanted to work with people. After decades of odd jobs, he decided it was time for a new direction in his life. So in 2012, he enrolled in ASU’s School of Social Work in Tucson as an undergraduate.

“One of the most important things in social work: first you have to listen. If you’re not listening, then you don’t know [how to help],” he said.

When he speaks of his experiences interning at various hospitals and care centers while working toward his degree, Virgen-Sandoval’s enthusiasm is evident. In particular, he remembers working at a crisis center in Tucson with special-needs children.

“That was an incredible experience,” he said. “It really fired me up.”

Though it took Virgen-Sandoval three decades to return to school, he says it’s the best decision he ever made, and he’s not letting his cancer diagnosis stop him from achieving his goal.

“I accept what people tell me but I ignore it enough to keep it from being a barrier from moving forward. It’s like, ‘Okay, I see the walls, but there is an opening, I am moving forward.’”

Indeed, Virgen-Sandoval has already been accepted to the master’s program at the School of Social Work, which begins only a week after he graduates. He’ll know his full prognosis a few days after he walks across the stage.

He says he’s just concentrating on looking ahead.

“I plan ahead, and if [the next day doesn’t come], it doesn’t matter. It’s better to always keep moving forward,” he said.

Virgen-Sandova hopes his experiences dealing with cancer can help others, especially those he encounters in his social work, to get motivated and take advantage of their lives.

“I want them to … take that experience and be able to use that for themselves, and to share it with other people,” he said.

Realizing the dream

Virgen-Sandoval recently made a trip to ASU’s Tempe campus to explore some landmarks he’d never seen before. He’d only ever driven by Old Main since that day back in 1981, but on this visit, he had the chance to get a glimpse inside the historic campus landmark and witness some of the history.

Spreading his arms wide as he took it all in, he said, “This is my dream. To graduate a Sun Devil.”