PAU Graduate Marco Varillas Prentice Battles Cancer While Earning MA in Counseling

July 1, 2022
Marco Varillas Prentice
On June 18, 2022, Marco Varillas Prentice proudly walked across the stage at the Palo Alto University (PAU) commencement ceremony to receive his MA in Counseling diploma. This moment had profound meaning because he didn’t think he would make it to graduation day.
Prentice was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2017, less than a year after enrolling at PAU. Due to his ongoing cancer treatments, it took Prentice six years to complete the program, which typically takes two years for most students.
“I wanted to give up so many times,” says Prentice. “I was in and out of the hospital. I would start to recover from surgery and become hopeful about my studies, but then the doctor would tell me that I had a complication, and I would have to withdraw from my classes. This happened over and over again; I thought I would never make it to graduation day.”
Luckily, members of the PAU faculty and staff believed in Prentice’s potential and supported him every step of the way. His practicum instructor, Sue Sadik, PhD, emailed him after every class inquiring how she could support him. One of his professors, Karen Roller, PhD, worked behind the scenes to ensure he received his assignments and stayed in school. Dr. Roller also connected him to Ana Castrillo, PAU’s special needs coordinator, who assisted him with completing his classes. 
“I owe Dr. Roller and Ana Castrillo everything,” says Prentice. “I had their phone numbers on speed dial, letting them know when I couldn’t make class or when I was having surgery and in recovery for a month. And they would just tell me not to worry and to take care of myself. Rather than drop me, they would send me my assignments and encourage me not to give up.” 
In addition to cancer treatment, Prentice was born with one kidney smaller than the other. Growing up, he suffered from Spina Bifida and had frequent urinary and bladder infections. This medical condition made it more difficult for his body to handle surgical procedures, leading to more complications, longer recovery times, and uncertainty about his survival. 
“After so many surgeries and complications, I had lost hope. It got to the point that I once said to Ana, ‘I’m having another big surgery, and the doctors are unsure of the outcome, so if I don’t make it can you give my diploma to my wife?’” says Prentice. “Ana replied, ‘That is not going to happen, so let’s not even talk about it … and I’ll see you next quarter,’ and well, I always saw her the next quarter.” 
Rough Beginnings
Prentice was born in Peru, and his family immigrated to Sunnyvale, California, when he was nine years old. He was not happy in his new environment—as a Spanish speaker, he couldn’t understand the English spoken around him, and other kids bullied him for dressing differently and not fitting in. From elementary to high school, Prentice was expelled from several schools because he consistently got into fights and rebelled against his teachers in hopes that he would be sent back to Peru, but to no avail. 
During his high school years, Prentice was part of a “Scared Straight” program for at-risk students. One day his mentor asked him, “Why do you do the things you do?” This one question prompted Prentice to become more self-reflective and he realized how his behavior affected the people around him. This mentor motivated him to learn about psychology and he told Prentice that he would make a good counselor someday. 
In the fall of 2001, Prentice took his first psychology class at De Anza City College. While earning his associate's degree, he also worked as a mentor for middle school students who were at risk for drug and gang activity. He enjoyed being a mentor but wanted to contribute to the treatment plans for the kids, especially for the Spanish-speakers. He was told that he needed a master’s degree to write individual treatment plans, which planted the seed to earn a graduate degree later in life.   
“Growing up, I had multiple psychologists and counselors, and I could never relate to them,” says Prentice. “As a kid, I would think, ‘Look at me, look at how I’m dressed. You’re over there with your suit and briefcase. How do you know what I’m going through when you haven’t been through what I’ve been through? How can you speak about what I’m doing when you have no idea why I’m doing it? You can’t put yourself in my shoes.’”
Coming Full Circle
Knowing that he could relate to Spanish-speaking immigrant children seeking mental health services motivated Prentice to finish his bachelor’s degree in psychology at Phoenix University and then enroll at PAU for a master’s degree in counseling. 
“I’ve been there. I know what these kids are going through. I know why they behave the way they do,” says Prentice. “I have seen, done, and participated in questionable extracurricular activities just like they do, and I’ve learned the lessons that can help them. And, since they can relate to me, they typically open up more and get more out of the counseling sessions.”
Prentice’s advocates at PAU worked diligently to keep him enrolled because they understood that he would become an incredibly effective counselor due to his background. Prentice shared a time when he wanted to drop out of PAU, but Dr. Roller called him and said something he would never forget. Dr. Roller said, “You must complete this degree; people need you.” This message provided Prentice with a level of purpose that fueled his perseverance, and, six years later, his graduation day finally arrived. 
“I’m so excited to graduate, so glad that I didn’t give up, and so grateful that PAU didn’t give up on me,” says Prentice. “Now I can live my dream of serving immigrant families, advocating for those that feel weak and neglected, as well as helping at-risk kids who get kicked out of one school after another, feeling labeled and excluded, and saying to them what I needed to hear when I was growing up.”