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Students as Activists: Youth Cancer Advocate Carolyn Rubenstein Interview

TeachHUB Interview

Students as Activists: Youth Cancer Advocate Carolyn Rubenstein InterviewCarolyn Rubenstein shows just what students can accomplish. At just 15, Carolyn started her own non-profit group to start pen pal programs between students and young cancer patients. Carolyn, now 24, has expanded the program to provide cancer survivor's with college scholarships. She shares some of their stories in her new book Perseverence: True Voices of Cancer Survivors.

Her example shows the power of student activism while removing the stigma surrounding students with cancer or other serious illnesses.

You started your non-profit organization at 15 as a pen-pal program. Can you describe that program and why it is important for all kids?


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My outlook on life has changed tremendously over the years. The reason: Carolyn’s Compassionate Children, better known today as CCC.

Let me take you back to the beginning: summer of 1999. I had just finished 8th grade. Before entering high school, I made a trip to Camp Sunshine, a camp for children with life-threatening illnesses. I went without my parents to spend a week volunteering. What was thought to be just another week in my life, albeit one that would fill me with warm memories, turned out to be much more (an understatement). After this week, I was no longer just a teen transitioning into high school.


I was determined to help alleviate the isolation so many of the kids had described. I kept in touch with the friends I made at camp through letter writing and decided that through this medium more children could be helped. And so CCC was born as a pen pal program linking children with life-threatening illnesses to their “healthy” peers. Why the name, Carolyn’s Compassionate Children? I asked my mom to help me create a name and voila -- Carolyn’s Compassionate Children!

So officially it’s our name, but please call us CCC... we’re not children anymore!


How did you balance this outreach work at such a young age?


It was a lot of work, but I had very supportive friends and family that helped me out along the way!


Do you have advice for students who would like to get involved with this or other causes?


Yes, definitely try to be involved in as many organizations and causes as you can without disrupting your schoolwork. I truly believe that giving back is an important part of life. You should start by asking your teachers what community service clubs are active at your school and try to get involved!


The organization has evolved into a scholarship program. What brought about this development?


While navigating my own college search, I realized the lack of financial resources for young adult cancer survivors. To provide support to young adult survivors for college, CCC’s College Scholarship Program was created.


How many scholarships have you awarded?


Over 100!


What are some of those students doing now?


Many are now in medical or nursing school. Some are still in college finishing their degrees.


Students as Activists: Youth Cancer Advocate Carolyn Rubenstein InterviewWhat can teachers do to remove the stigma of cancer or other illnesses for students?


Cancer is just a word. We need to take back the power from this word that has such negative connotations (rightfully so) and put it on the individual. It is just a word. It should not be a word that defines someone.

Teachers can also have their students read my book, Perseverance!  Here is a lesson on overcoming adversity based on the the story of a young cancer survivor's experience mountain-climbing.


Of all the stories of cancer survival, does one story stay with you the most?


They are each so special and meaningful, it is too hard to pick just one.

I was able to share the story of 20 college cancer survivors in Perseverance!  Zac York's story is included in the lesson plan available in TeachHUB's K-12 News section.

What was your most difficult moment working with children with cancer?

Losing someone close to me was a difficult and painful experience to go through. But this person taught me so much. For example:  

  • Don’t wait for a crisis to live life to the fullest.
  • Time is precious so don’t put things off. If you want to do something, do it. As Benjamin Franklin says, “Dost thou love life? Then do not squander time, for that’s the stuff life is made of.”
  • Never underestimate our strength as individuals. We are a lot stronger than we give ourselves credit for.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help. It’s not a sign of weakness.
  • Never forget to laugh.


At 24, you’re still a young student yourself. What do you plan on doing after graduating with your PhD in Psychology from Harvard?


I plan on continuing my advocacy work and research.

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