The Story of Ryan Giglia: Community Builder and Cancer Fighter
Ryan Giglia, assistant director of Student Union and Activities, opens up about his battle with cancer.
If you spend any time in the Seymour College Union or at campus events, it is likely you’ve met Ryan Giglia '95/'99. He’s the one actively engaging with students while his name is being yelled across the room by other students. (Trust me, this happens a lot.)
He’s one of the SUNY Brockport staff members who works to ensure students experience a vibrant college life.
For almost five years, Giglia has served as the assistant director of Student Union and Activities. His role includes working with Brockport Student Government, Fraternity & Sorority Life, and other student groups. He also plays a part in planning the college's signature events, like Welcome Week, Bport Homecoming & Family Weekend, and senior class celebrations.
Giglia is also a two-time Brockport graduate, having earned a bachelor's degree in recreation and leisure studies and a master's degree in educational administration. After college, he worked at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) and then for a private company before his return to Brockport.
“When Brockport posted the job, I could not ignore it. I just felt like I was getting called back home,” Giglia said.
Kim Haines, director of Student Union and Activities, met Giglia when he was working at RIT and said his love for Brockport was apparent.
“He is passionate and driven. He really wants the best-case scenario for students and truly believes in spirit, tradition, and the role of programming on a campus to build community,” Haines said.
In March of 2019, Giglia found out he had stage four colon cancer. While he describes himself as a private person, he decided to be as open about it as he could be — because of the students.
In the past year, the cancer has spread to his liver. Although he has endured four types of chemo, his cancer has not been responsive to them. Now part of a clinical trial that has him traveling back and forth to Buffalo, Giglia hopes the trial will slow or shrink his cancer. He said this study will likely help cancer patients down the road.
“I wanted to be an open book. I wanted people to learn from this,” he said. “Life isn't always roses and rainbows; life has twists and turns and dark times."
He feels it's important that students see how he's handling the battle, as he aims to tackle it with grace and honesty. With a little laugh, Giglia said, “This isn’t a house party on Holley Street.” He added that people need prayers, good vibes, and thoughts during times like these.
“I operate at 50 to 60 percent, which is the most frustrating thing,” he said. The fatigue and pain that come with cancer prevent him from working at the level he was once used to.
“Having a good supervisor is the best thing for me right now. She’s very fair to me and still expects me to get work done,” he said of Haines. “There is no one more frustrated with my inability to do everything than me,” he added.
“Ryan a year ago and Ryan today move at a different pace, and that’s okay,” said Haines. She explained his love for students gives him energy and something else to focus on.
According to her, Giglia is one of the strongest advocates for building community on campus, and the students who have been influenced by him seem to agree.
“Ryan means a lot to me. He’s one of the people that inspired me to pursue my master's in higher education. He’s the reason I want to advise students in my career,” said Alexis Graesser ’19, former BSG activities director.
More than an advisor, Giglia is a mentor and friend, too. Graesser called him a "fearless advocate" for students on campus, one who's not afraid to have his opinion heard. “Working with Ryan was the best,” she said. “He really shaped my Brockport experience out to be what it was.”
When Giglia was first diagnosed, he decided that cancer would always come second.
“I could sit at home and think about this all day, or I could try to live my days as me. I could be just a cancer patient, or I could just be me and have this terrible inconvenience of cancer.”
Brockport Has His Back
“You don’t realize how much people care about you until something like this happens,” Giglia said.
Some of the gestures are simple, like BSG students showing up at his house with pizza and wings.
Then, there are the big moments. At one point, doctors were looking to have Giglia receive a liver transplant. Two Brockport staff members offered to find out if they were a match.
“To have someone come and say they will give you part of their liver, there are no words that I can tell you that can express how I feel about that. The words don’t exist,” Giglia said.
"As his boss and friend, it hasn’t been easy to watch this," Haines said. But on the flip side, “Watching him is inspiring, because he’s so determined to beat it, and that’s a space you always want people to sit in."
Potentially Life-Saving Tips from Giglia
- If you have the chance to have a colonoscopy earlier in life than at age 50, do it. Advocate for yourself.
- Be willing to talk about your digestive health.
- Consider being an organ donor.