Recent graduate, facing illness in his senior year, succeeded by design

Nay-Quan Bryan '22

Toward the end of last summer, as he prepared to start his fourth year as a Radford University fashion design major, things were looking good for Nay-Quan Bryan.

The 23-year-old from Irvington, New Jersey, had, for several years, held the prestigious Rosalyn M. Lester Scholarship, which supports one design student in the College of Visual and Performing Arts.

Bryan – whose friends call him “Quan” – was also about to enter his fifth semester as a residential adviser and had recently finished an internship with Vintage Havana, working with the brand’s recent collection and learning about fabric samples, product development and pricing information.

A fan of history and mythology (and, yes, “Xena: Warrior Princess” as well), Bryan sifts through the lore of the past as part of his work and was drawing inspiration for his upcoming projects from such figures as Elizabeth I and Artemis, the Greek goddess of the hunt. 

“I was like, OK, I’m going to really make the most of this year, make a lot of memories. And I had my senior fashion show to think about. I had a lot on my mind, but I was excited,” he recalled.

At that moment, however, he had no way of knowing he was also about to face one of the toughest and most serious challenges of his life. 

When he returned to campus for the fall, friends noticed he'd lost weight, but initially, that just seemed a plus: While Bryan had dropped about 40 pounds since the previous semester, he assumed that was the result of all the walking he’d done as an intern.


In October, while getting ready for a graduate portrait, he discovered a lump under his right arm. It was painless but large enough to notice, a startling indication of how quickly it had taken shape.

Surgeons extracted the mass, along with several lymph nodes, and then just before Thanksgiving break, a dire analysis arrived: Bryan had Stage 4 non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma, cancer of the lymphatic system.

"Hearing that you have cancer is a big thing," he said recently, with a heavy sigh of understatement. "That was a very emotional time for me."

His doctor scheduled him to begin chemotherapy and recommended he take the semester off from school to focus on his treatment and health. Because of the structure of Bryan’s course schedule, doing so would delay his graduation by a full year, something he did not want. But could he avoid it?

"I was like, I can't just sit here and cry in my cereal about it every day," he recalled. "I'd have moments where I would get really emotional about my situation, but at the same time, I've always been very outgoing. A happy person who laughs a lot. And I wasn't gonna let that change because of what was going on in my life." 

Bryan decided to press on, to face three and a half months of chemotherapy — six treatments, one every three weeks — and the ill effects of the disease itself while also taking classes and working as an RA. 

"It did motivate me. It did tighten my focus," he said of the challenge. "And I just realized, you know, I only have so much time in the world. I'm going to do as much as I can." 

In order to pull it all off, however, he knew he would need help, and it came to him from friends, faculty and university staff.

Nay-Quan Bryan_garment

"You hate to see somebody that's not feeling well, especially when they're a young person, having to fight at that point in their life," said Julene Hyatt Rice, a Blacksburg interior designer who'd met Bryan and struck up a friendship with him while both were taking classes at Radford University.

As Bryan doesn’t drive and has no car, Rice and her husband started giving him rides to doctor’s appointments and even, on occasion, back to New Jersey. After Bryan underwent his treatments, the couple and their three teenagers would put him up in their home to give him a space to recuperate.

“Something that I loved so much when he was staying with us … he baked constantly. Cakes of all sorts. Lots and lots of brownies … we never knew what dessert we would find each afternoon,” Rice recalled.

"I can say, honestly, that he is part of our family," she explained and said that he and she and her children often unwound by bingeing on horror movies like "The Nun" and "Annabel," supernatural tales that, in their own way, offered a therapeutic contrast to Bryan's more earthbound fears, as the chemotherapy drained his energy and left him nauseous.

"The biggest thing was him being so exhausted; that was our big concern," Rice said. "Like, would he even be able to go in and spend time in the studio? But he did it. He did it." 

While he was able to keep his RA position, side effects from chemo would prevent him from working during the periods immediately after his therapy cycles.

"If he wanted to stay in the role as an RA, and he could, we would make it work," said Olivia Maldonado, resident director for housing and residential life, who helped get others to cover shifts he had to miss.

The staff gave support in other ways, too, she said, sending him gifts such as a popcorn machine, a blanket to ease his chills, Door Dash vouchers for food delivery and other touches. 

"We made sure to put some ginger candy in there because that was the only candy he said was helping him with nausea,” Maldonado said. 

"It's not often people are like, 'Yeah, I'm going to continue to work' if they get something like this," she added. "I think he did an amazing job for going through what he did this year."

nayquan and doss
Nay-Quan Bryan '22 and professor of design Farrell Doss, Ph.D., at the design department’s senior showcase in March.

When it came to the demands of his classroom work, Bryan's instructors gave him additional leeway in certain areas, but with set constraints as well.

"He got all the time he needed. Until the deadlines," explained Farrell Doss, Ph.D., one of his design professors.

"We also knew he could not physically sew all his garments, so faculty helped,” Doss said. “He knew by us making them that his pieces were not eligible for senior superlatives, senior awards. He knew that. There was that trade-off. But he told me, 'I just want to graduate.'" 

Though he had help with the sewing, Bryan was still able to put his work on display in the design department’s senior showcase in March, exhibiting about a dozen garments in the student fashion show.

A few weeks after that, following his last cycle of chemotherapy and a PET scan, doctors told him he was cancer-free.

"Everything came back good; there's none lingering in my body," Bryan said, but he’ll have to continue to see an oncologist and undergo periodic check-ups for several years. 

In Doss, Bryan had more than just a mentor in his field of study; he also had a guide who'd faced some of the same physical challenges. About eight years ago, Doss, too, was diagnosed with cancer, but he underwent treatment and recovered as well.

"Cancer is insidious. It can pop back up whenever it wants. We'll both have to manage it the rest of our lives ... you always have to be vigilant,” Doss said. “I told him: You're never going to be the same, but you'll be a new Quan.”

"I don't want to leave the image that this year was doom and gloom. Oh, no. We laughed. We played. We celebrated. We cried at first, but you know, you wash it clean, and you let it go. And he was someone with the internal fortitude to claw his way through it,” Doss said. 

"Between the university and family and friends, it's been pretty inspiring to see how a community can pull together and make a difference in somebody else's life. It makes them feel loved, and he can feel that love," Rice added.

Nay-Quan Fashion Show
In March, Bryan put his works on display in the design department’s senior showcase, exhibiting about a dozen garments in the student fashion show. Numerous students volunteered to work as models for the event.

On May 7, Bryan graduated cum laude in design, on schedule. He’s now applying for work in New York and New Jersey and said he has some leads.

In conversation, nothing about his manner suggests someone who faced a terrifying ordeal and endured extreme physical hardship while also completing a year of intensive undergraduate work. He says he’s simply focused on the future.

"Right now, I just want to get a job. I have time to really figure out what I want to do with my degree, and I know I want to work for a design house," Bryan said.

"Just getting a job in general, getting my foot in the door, is my first step. And then I think I'll go from there." 

Jun 2, 2022
Neil Harvey
(540) 831-5150