GREAT GRADUATES 2020: Paya Yazdanpanah

April 16, 2020

Paya Yazdanpanah

Bellarmine University will confer more than 900 degrees this May from bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral programs. Collectively, our students' accomplishments are immeasurable. They’ve achieved lofty successes and overcome daunting challenges, even before COVID-19 changed the world and pushed campus life totally online. We're celebrating our graduates with stories that highlight their ingenuity and resilience.

Paya Yazdanpanah, Biology Major

Paya Yazdanpanah sees his darkest hour as his brightest. 

In his time at Bellarmine, Paya and his mother were both diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a rare cancer affecting the immune system. Following 6 months of chemotherapy his junior year, both his lungs collapsed as well. 

Paya said these experiences taught him life-defining lessons about the value of relationships and of giving back and strengthened his resolve to become a physician.      

“That’s what pushing me now,” he said. “I’m blessed and privileged to be alive. I have real motivation now to be a doctor. I want to join the next generation of great doctors and give back to the profession that has given me so much.”

Through it all, he’s maintained a 4.0 grade-point average. He’s worked in the Student Success Center as a chemistry tutor and also served as a Bellarmine Learning Community mentor, helping students transition to college. In the biology department, he was a work study tasked with setting up labs for students, mixing chemical solutions and organizing supplies. He’s done research with Dr. Mary O. Huff, Bellarmine biochemist.

Paya took some time off during his chemo treatments, but otherwise pushed through with the support of faculty and classmates. 

“Bellarmine has been top-notch in caring,” he said. “That’s not an empty platitude. It’s real to me. That’s what I love about this school.” 

Paya’s parents fled religious persecution in Iran. His mother, Mahy Victoria Sarkhosh, who is Muslim, and his father, Pezhman Yazdanpanah, who is Baha’I, fell inlove, but their marriage was threatened. They fled to Pakistan when Paya was 6 months old. They found asylum in the U.S. and eventually landed in Louisville.

Paya said he’s sorry to have never known his ancestral home but feels blessed to have a cultural touchstone in language. He speaks fluent Persian.     

After attending St. Xavier High School, Paya found Bellarmine to be a natural fit for college. 

“It seemed like a tight-knit, accessible, comfortable community kind of place,” he said.

His sophomore year, his mother was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer.  

He worked hard in school to make her proud. 

Two years later, as she was in remission, he found a lump in his throat and was diagnosed with the same cancer. He had a port surgically implanted in his chest and underwent 12 rounds of chemotherapy.

“It was grueling from start to finish every single time,” he said. 

Paya found motivation in his mother’s cancer fight. He thought, if she could do it, so could he.

In that time, something changed for him. He’d always been driven to succeed, a value his parents had imbued, but now he had a deeply personal call to medicine.  

“I want to study biology and chemistry and anatomy because I want to take care of people like me, that 21-year-old kid sitting on a hospital bed with cancer,” he said. “I want to show them my scar and say, ‘Everything is going to be all right.’”

He’ll spend the months following graduation applying to medical schools and making up for time lost to fighting cancer, he said, like volunteering for local charities and traveling.

“Chemo was a dark time, but it was also the brightest,” he said. “I developed a stronger bond with my professors. I know how caring they are.”

He said he’ll also look for a way to give back to his alma mater. 

“I’ll always keep one foot here,” he said. “This place has given me so much.”


Hometown: Born in Tehran, Iran, but I consider Louisville, Ky., my true home.

Major: Biology. Minor in biochemistry and psychology.

Internships or work experience: Biology department work-study, tutoring and volunteering/interning at Baxter Biomedical Research Building for the University of Louisville.

Post-grad plans: Medical school.

Why Bellarmine? I chose Bellarmine because of the smaller class sizes… Bellarmine had that close community dynamic that I wanted to be a part of.

How would you describe your college experience? …Bellarmine truly stood out to me during my fight with cancer. I learned that their love of community was not just an empty platitude but rather backed by action. I cannot tell you enough about the kindness that was shown to me during the darkest time in my life.

Who has made the difference along the way? So many people left their mark on my life in so many positive ways. Dr. Anthony J. Lentz and Dr. Mary O. Huff were very influential, not only giving me my first job but also providing much needed support for me when my mom was fighting cancer as well as when I was fighting it. Dr. Mark Wiegand was also very influential as he helped me find my first internship.


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