Thea Campbell ’23 | Junior | Marketing Major | Student-Athlete

After taking a semester off due to health complications, Thea Campbell ’23 is thriving at Menlo as a weightlifter, an involved student leader, and an impassioned advocate for epilepsy, leukemia, and lymphoma. She discusses her health and student journey, as well as her participation in the Menlo community and her hometown in Sacramento County.

Can you share a little about yourself?

I’m Thea and I’m from a small town, called Folsom. It’s in the Sacramento area, and I was a weightlifter in Sacramento.

I competed in Vegas and the Menlo College weightlifting team was in Vegas at the same competition. Someone who is now an alumni actually reached out to me and was like, ‘you need to talk to the weightlifting coach, he’s there.’ And I was like, ‘I’m just a little sophomore in high school, I don’t know what to do.’

I met with Carl, the weightlifting coach, and that’s kind of how I started my journey to Menlo. There was a lot that like went in between, but that is pretty much like how I got the ball rolling to come here.

What in particular made you choose Menlo?

Definitely the size of the school. It’s small, close-knit, very family-oriented. I feel like there’s not a lot of students. So coming from a relatively big high school, it’s nice to pretty much know everybody. You see the same faces every day and you always have classes with your friends, and it’s just very community-like. It’s nice to be able to see familiar faces and know your professors one-on-one, rather than them just know your name and not who you are. And also, the weightlifting team is definitely why I’m here because I love lifting.

How would you say the pandemic has affected your athletic career?

I lost a lot of team connections because we were all by ourselves. I was lifting in the garage with my dad most days and I was by myself. And when you’re lifting, it’s really important to have people behind you to lift you up, not just in lifting, but in life, as well. To be by yourself was kind of depressing, I guess.

It took a toll on all of us, but now that we’re back, we’re super thankful to have a family supporting us in all aspects of life. But, it was really sad for a while when we were all alone in our little garages. 

Are you involved in any other clubs or extracurriculars on campus?

We started a club called Grow Love, and it’s actually Desmond Frazier’s club. It’s about spreading and positivity and kind of making a safe space for students to be involved in somewhere where they can talk about what they need to talk about, or write poems and feel like it’s safe to express what they want to in an environment that nobody’s gonna judge.

I think that’s super important to grow positivity and have that space where students are comfortable with sharing and not in front of peers that they don’t trust. Everybody is super comfortable around each other, and I think it just goes to show that the environment and the students that we bring to an area really have an impact on students’ life and just in general. 

Can you talk about your health journey and anything else you’d like to share about it?

So over the pandemic, I was diagnosed with epilepsy, which was pretty crazy. I started to have seizures, I guess, in 2019. So when I was still here, we just didn’t know what they were and they were really, really subtle and there are over 40 different types of seizures. So I had no idea, my mom had no idea, my family literally had no idea what was going on.

Something was happening and we were just like, okay, like maybe I should talk to somebody. Then I actually got a concussion in the summer of 2019, I think, and that’s kind of when everything turned like super weird and I was like, ‘this is not okay’.

At this time, I was having seizures and, I was trying not to tell myself that they were seizures because that’s just not something anybody wants to tell themselves. So I started talking to a neurologist and I started to have MRIs and an EEG, and I had my first grand mal seizure in an EEG and they were able to record my small seizures at the same time.

Then there was a mass that they found on the MRIs. That led to me meeting with the surgeon and trying to figure out what the mass was, and they were really certain it was a tumor for a long time, which was scary. Then I had special MRIs and super long MRIs, and that was just pretty overwhelming, being at home because of the pandemic and not being with my friends.

I went through more tests and I walked into surgery knowing that they were gonna wake me up here and there, and went in. They weren’t sure what it was at the time and sent it to pathology, and it came back as focal cortical dysplasia, which is means my nerves didn’t expand properly when I was a kid in my mom’s stomach. It causes my epilepsy, so it causes my seizures. Luckily, it’s not a tumor and being diagnosed with epilepsy gave me a different perspective on life in general.

I want to use what I went through to help someone else who’s kind of going through the same thing. So I started a podcast as my way of coping and dealing and kind of grieving with what I was going through. I explained my story, not to finish, cause I’m not done with anything yet, but start to after surgery.

That was my way of helping myself recover, and now I am super open about epilepsy and I want people to know that we’re not a stigma. We’re more than epilepsy. We’re more than just people who have a seizure disorder. We can do anything we want, and there’s nothing stopping us. So it’s super important to just stay positive throughout the whole thing. My podcast is the Brain Wave Podcast, if anybody wants to listen to it, but that’s my story.

How did Menlo or the Menlo community support you during that time?

FaceTime was definitely a saving grace. I would call friends all the time and, we would just sit on FaceTime and talk or watch TV on FaceTime and just having other people outside of my bubble of people to talk to really helped me cope. I knew they were always gonna be there.

November’s actually Epilepsy Awareness Month, and in 2021, my family decided to make shirts. So my dad printed shirts for us, and a lot of my friends here bought some from me to support me through my journey. It just means a lot to have people stand behind you, even if they don’t know what you’re necessarily going through. It’s hard to explain what it’s like having epilepsy to a person who has no idea, so it’s just amazing to have people who are willing to listen to you and be there behind you, no matter what really. 

Are you involved in any organizations outisde of Menlo as well?

I’m actually super, super involved with the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Specifically, the Sacramento chapter, because that’s where I grew up.

I started in 2017, I believe, and I ran for the students of the year campaign and raised $36,000 in seven weeks, and then I was on the junior board, which is just like a normal board, but for teens and high school students. Then, they approached me about the first-ever All Star campaign. So that was like the students of the year, for our chapter, but instead of being just for our chapter, it was nationwide.

So I did that, and I raised $52,000 in seven weeks and got to name a research portfolio for my grandfather who passed away from leukemia, and then for my best friend who was battling brain cancer at the same time.

It’s a children’s initiative portfolio, and now I mentor for the students of the year. I’m kind of the lead mentor, trying to take them under my wing and explain what a Leukemia & Lymphoma society mentor looks like. Being there for them if they need help, navigating them through the challenges of the campaign, and seeing what we can do to help them succeed in any way we can. 

What is life after Menlo looking like?

Yeah, it’s definitely a big question mark, what I’m gonna be doing after Menlo. I see myself doing marketing somewhere. I’m looking for an internship right now because it’s my summer cohort internship year, and I’ve been looking forward to it since I came to Menlo. Actually, I think it gives students a brief overview of what life is gonna be like after, which is really exciting.

I kind of want to do marketing for a children’s hospital or work at a children’s hospital just because of what I’ve gone through. I know what it’s like going into hospitals and I’ve worked with children my whole life, so it’s kind of just something that really resonated with me. But being an athlete, I also have a love for sports. So that’s why sports marketing is also another option for me, but I’m really not set on anything right now. I have a few more years left and I just want to enjoy it and work wherever I can go.