Despite facing adversity throughout her life, Rachel Zelenak will reach a major milestone on May 5 when she receives her bachelor of arts in psychology from Wayne State University. The 23-year-old honors student also will represent the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences as she addresses her fellow graduates during the university’s virtual commencement ceremonies.
Zelenak was diagnosed at age 9 with arteriovenous malformation (AVM) a rare condition characterized by an abnormal tangle of blood vessels connecting arteries and veins. Since the initial diagnosis, she has undergone approximately 20 surgeries and numerous chemotherapy treatments.
“During my college years, I’ve had to take time off periodically for surgeries and chemotherapy, which left me feeling like I was not reaching my full potential and disappointing my professors,” Zelenak said. “But I had great support from faculty, advisors and other students, which really made the difference and helped to keep me motivated and optimistic.”
Zelenak attributes her drive to a life-changing inspirational event she undertook in 2017 that she says will always remain with her. “I had just finished chemo treatment and really wanted to pursue a goal that I had been dreaming of for years — the 500-mile walk called Camino de Santiago, or referred to in English as, ‘The Way of St. James.’”
Zelenak embarked on the walk solo from France to Spain during the blistering July heat, and completed it in 32 days. “It was definitely challenging, but really rewarding, particularly during that time of my life. It reminded me of the worth in our authentic journeys, and how life isn’t always about the destination.”
Following the 500-mile walk — which she termed “From Chemo to Camino” — Zelenak jumped back into her academic pursuits receiving accolades as an exemplary student. In 2018, she received the Department of Psychology’s Distinguished Achievement Award, as well as grants through the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program and Psi Chi to pursue her research endeavors at Wayne State.
Zelenak was involved in several research labs and presented her research to the College on Problems of Drug Dependence and the International Society for Research on Nicotine and Tobacco. Recently she presented research at the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation’s World Congress on Intergenerational Trauma. She also volunteered as a Psychology Academic Support Services peer mentor.
Following graduation, Zelenak plans to continue working as a research project coordinator at Henry Ford Health System in the Center for Health Policy and Health Services Research. She also intends to continue as a research assistant at Wayne State in Professor Jennifer Gómez’s lab. In the fall, Zelenak plans to apply to Ph.D. programs for clinical psychology focusing in trauma psychology or addiction.