An Act of Kindness Brings Second Chances to Others

by John Grennan

Physician Keeps Pushing to Succeed

Dr. Ari Umutyan '95 and his fellow bicycle fundraisers.

Dr. Ari Umutyan ’95 sees remarkable things happen when his cancer patients receive another chance at life. Take Daryl Brueggeman, a 43-year-old whom Umutyan treated for Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Brueggeman is now preparing for a one-day, 100-mile bicycle trip around Lake Tahoe to raise money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society (LLS), and he asked Umutyan to join him.

“I was honored,” says Umutyan, “But I remember thinking, ‘I am not sure I can drive 100 miles in my car.’”

But Umutyan started riding with Brueggeman and the LLS Team in Training in February, and he is ready for the big ride on June 3.

None of this would have happened if Brueggeman hadn’t received another chance thanks to Umutyan. It wasn’t long ago that Saint Mary’s took a chance on Umutyan, helping him come to the United States to pursue his dream of becoming a doctor.

Born in 1973 to Armenian parents in Turkey, Umutyan was an outsider in a country scarred by ethnic violence. In 1981, his family immigrated to Germany, where they felt more isolated. When his father suffered a heart attack four years later, it strained the family, but also left Umutyan with a sense of purpose.

“I saw how physicians helped my father and my family,” he recalls. “And I thought about having a similar effect on other people.”

His school counselor told him to forget about medicine, but Umutyan was determined. A visit during his junior year of high school to his older brother in California turned into a college-hunting trip, including a stop in Moraga. When he met with representatives from the Center for International Programs, they sensed he would thrive at Saint Mary’s.

“Of the hundreds of international students who have crossed my path, he is definitely one of the bright and shining stars,” says the center’s coordinator Maureen Little.

His father contacted a German Christian Brother to tell him he was convinced Umutyan would become a physician, but couldn’t afford college. A few months later, Umutyan received a fax from then-SMC President Brother Mel Anderson telling him that the Brothers would find a way for him to attend the school.
Two days later, Umutyan was in Moraga. After some initial culture shock, he immersed himself in a community that was quick to embrace him.

Brother Camillus Chavez, who taught Umutyan in a Jan Term course, was among the many professors impressed by Umutyan.

“Despite great stress caused by his being a foreign student, and the consequent lack of financial aid from government sources, Ari bore all troubles with great grace and great trust in God,” he says.

The Brothers’ faith in Umutyan proved well-founded. He was a straight-A student in biology, won the Lasallian Award at graduation and worked at the LEO Center for at-risk youth in Oakland.

While at Saint Mary’s, Umutyan met fellow biology major Erin Cowen. They ultimately were married in the Chapel and now have a 4-year-old son, Alec.

After graduation, Umutyan went to USC Medical School and completed a UC Davis oncology fellowship. He says these successes were possible because of Saint Mary’s.

“Home is not about citizenship, language or ethnicity — it’s where you feel most comfortable. At Saint Mary’s, I had a distinct sense of belonging,” he says.