Living life to its fullest: Angelica Parente, 2023 Terry Fox Gold Medal Winner
For Angelica Parente, a criminology major and this year’s Terry Fox Gold Medal recipient, life is about making every moment count.
With this mindset, Parente has built herself a stellar academic record and an impressive resume of co-op and volunteer experiences. “Life can change so quickly,” says Parente. “I've never wanted to take anything for granted, or waste the opportunities I've been given.”
Parente lives with an arteriovenous malformation (AVM) in her brain, a tumor-like cluster of malformed blood vessels. The AVM is prone to bleeding and was discovered when she suffered her first brain hemorrhage at the age of ten. This condition makes her susceptible to strokes, seizures and their corresponding effects, including the permanent loss of her left field of vision.
“I think often when people meet me, there are a lot of preconceived ideas. People either say, well, you know, you look fine, so there can't be anything that wrong,” says Parente “Or they say ‘Oh my gosh, you're really sick’, with that pity narrative.”
Since her diagnosis, Parente has been determined to live life on her own terms. “I think people need to understand that, sure, I've had a lot of interesting situations,” she laughs, in reference to the four additional hemorrhages she has experienced in her life and subsequent rehabilitation. “But I'm still me as a person. Here are the challenges and here I am–I am not my challenges.”
Parente has excelled in her studies at SFU, achieving the Dean’s Honour Roll six times and the President’s Honour Roll thrice. She has volunteered at SFU’s forensic entomology lab and assists graduate student research on wrongful convictions, bereavement, vulnerable populations and perceptions of intimate partner violence. Recently, Parente completed a co-op term with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s (RCMP) Integrated Homicide Investigation Team. An avid reader, she read 100 books last year despite health challenges.
Parente suffered her most recent hemorrhage during the fall 2022 semester, creating complications related to her memory, comprehension and vision. “After this difficult situation this last year, I’m thankful to my professors for being so accommodating and allowing me to prioritize my health.”
“After recovering, Angelica wanted to ensure that she was able to complete the course,” says Dawn Rault, a lecturer in the School of Criminology. “We made arrangements for appropriate accommodations to ensure she was able to while managing serious symptoms.”
“It's so easy to say, well, you've got an exam or this and that, but a little kindness and empathy goes such a long way,” says Parente. Parente was able to complete her fall courses in the following semester and was retroactively added to the Dean’s and President’s Lists once again.
Parente attributes her ambition, determination, resilience and drive to her grandmother, or “nonna” in Parente’s Italian culture.
"My nonna Nina grew up in Italy during the 1930s, through the depression and the war,” says Parente. "She first came to Canada in the 50s, when she was around my age. She didn’t have much.”
After surviving tuberculosis, Parente’s nonna was advised by a doctor to “find a nice guy to take care of you and don’t have kids. Just settle down.” However, like her granddaughter, Nina was determined to make more out of her life than she had been prescribed.
“She got married, had six children and went to work,” says Parente. “She became the breadwinner in her home by starting her own business sewing clothing. All on her own.”
Nina also had a strong sense of volunteerism, donating her sewing services and working with her church, a value she passed down to her family.
Parente has amassed more than 300 hours of volunteer service while completing her degree at SFU, in addition to more than 500 volunteer hours completed during high school at St. Thomas More Collegiate. With her studies in criminology, Parente has become a manager of education at the Wrongful Convictions Collective, has worked at a soup kitchen and a safe injection site on the Downtown East Side and is a regular volunteer with Coquitlam Community Policing.
“Even if I can't make life necessarily less challenging for myself, I can maybe make it less challenging for others,” says Parente. “And hopefully, in the same way that Terry Fox did, that may inspire even more people to pay it forward.”
Her experiences working with vulnerable populations inspired a strong sense of social justice, which she hopes to carry forward into a career in the public service.
“Like Terry Fox, Angelica chooses to see possibility rather than obstacles; to dream big rather than look back,” writes Pamela Glatt, Director of Education at Innocence Canada and one of Parente’s many nominators. “She chooses to focus on thriving rather than surviving and she embodies so much of that passion and tenacity that Terry Fox still inspires in us today.”
Parente faces her obstacles with a sharp sense of humor (“My life is basically the non-fiction Days of Our Lives,” she jokes) and a strong support system of family and mentors within the criminology program.
“My parents and my younger brother are very supportive, and I also come from a huge Italian family,” Parente says. “And my nonna Nina and I are very close. She’s 93 now and we are on the phone three times a day.” Parente also thanks her religious community, Assistant Professor Maaike Helmus, PhD student Soraya Janus, her other nominators and her teachers in general.
“I like to ask myself, what can I do? When I can't find a solution, I make my own,” says Parente. “I don’t put limits on myself when there’s so much to enjoy in life.”
SFU's annual Terry Fox Run takes place Friday, September 22, 2023. The event honours the legacy of former SFU student Terry Fox and raises money for cancer research through the Terry Fox Foundation. Learn more about how to get involved.