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Gavin Cunningham

Taking Flight: Senior year disrupted by a brain tumor, but that didn’t stop this activist

Gavin Cunningham almost choked on his M&M milkshake when he checked his email over a break from a madrigal dress rehearsal and saw a congratulatory message from Illinois State University. Tuition would no longer be a worry. He was being awarded the McLean County Full Tuition Scholarship, which provides free tuition for up to four years.

Cunningham had just enough time to call his parents, Julie and Jeremy Cunningham, before he had to get back on stage. Julie ’96, M.S. ’03 is a special education teacher at Normal Community West High School, where he graduated from in May. He also plans on becoming a special education teacher. His dad M.S. ’11, is a data scientist at State Farm.

The family was due for some good news. Last October, Cunningham woke up the day after a cross country practice with an intense headache and was so weak he could barely walk. A trip to the emergency department ended in a helicopter flight to a Peoria hospital. Doctors diagnosed him with a brain abscess and treated him for a week in the hospital.

During a follow-up MRI in December, images revealed a mass in his brain, and a week before Christmas, confirmed it was a tumor. On January 2, the tumor, found benign, was removed.

“Since then, I’ve been pretty good,” he said, with a laugh. “I was extremely lucky to have a really supportive family and friends throughout the crisis. It also gave me a new perspective on life.”

After being out of school for four months, he returned in February, only to end up home a few weeks later with mononucleosis. In March, he went back, and then school switched to online classes due to the coronavirus (COVID-19).

But none of this put him behind. He already had a full semester of college credit and was accepted by eight colleges across the country. Illinois State was an easy choice, he said.

“It really came down to where I felt like I would be most valued as a student and as a person and ISU was the obvious answer. ISU is by far the best school for education, and it’s going to be a good fit for me.”

In high school, he was an athlete and was active in orchestra, choir, and the speech team. But what he talks most about is Best Buddies, which paired him with a student with disabilities.

“There wasn’t a minute I was a part of that that I wasn’t overjoyed doing it,” he said. “It was so impactful to not only help a student, but they become a friend of yours.”

Always interested in social causes, Cunningham’s activism grew after the 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17. He became active in the Not in Our School (NIOS) chapter at Normal West, a movement to build safer schools by standing up to bullying and intolerance. He also co-founded and leads BN Youth Activists, which has advocated for gun control, environmental causes, and most recently, supported collecting items for local healthcare workers.

“The Parkland shooting was a launching event,” he said. “It’s where I found my passion after hearing other high school students speak up and say we can make a difference.”

On campus he plans on getting involved with student government, environmental causes, and organizations for future teachers.

“After my recent health scare, I have been more devoted than ever to give everything I have to better others’ lives,” he said.

The McLean County Full Tuition Scholarship, which recognizes students for leadership, service, and community engagement, inspired Cunningham to do more, he said.

“It’s more motivation for me to continue doing work in the community,” he said. “And that’s a launch pad for me to do more in the future, when I’m in the classroom as a teacher and in the community as well.”

This is the third story in our “Taking Flight” series, profiling this year’s recipients of the McLean County Full Tuition Scholarship. Learn more about this scholarship awarded to new freshmen from McLean County for demonstrating leadership, service, and commitment to our community.