Nina Agnello, a sophomore majoring in business administration and psychology at SUNY Oswego, has learned a lot about responding to change and challenge.

She and her family had a life on Long Island that seemed idyllic at a very young age. It had the markings of what some Americans pride themselves in having: a beautiful home on a cul-de-sac, two children, a stay-at-home wife and a husband who worked in the city.  

Nina summed it up by saying, “Kids would play outside, moms would have wine at 6 p.m. and kids would come inside. Boom everything was a repeat, everything felt normal.”

The simplicity of life changed rather quickly for her. Her mother and father divorced when Nina was about 6 or 7 years old. Her time was now split between the two parents that she loved. Her only constant source of stability was from her brother, JJ.  He was only two years older than Nina, but he appeared older for his youthful years. 

“When our parents were getting a divorce I would sneak into JJ’s room and sleep with him. I would cry, because I did not know what was going to happen. He would tell me not to cry,” explained Nina. 

In August 2009, both Agnello children moved out of their picturesque home that they had lived in for years. They were making a transition with their mother to a home only five minutes away from their old neighborhood. Their mother was now working outside the home, and Nina and JJ spent their days together alone.  

They were only at their new home for two weeks when their lives took yet another turn.  One day JJ was acting different, and he seemed agitated. There was a huge change in his personality. Nina’s last moments with her brother would never be the same. The frantic 11 year-old called her parents at work and also dialed 911.

JJ was in a coma for three weeks and was placed on life-support before his passing. It was a long commute to the hospital, so Nina and her parents found solitude at the Ronald McDonald House. She did not return to her new home for a very long time.  

“Ronald McDonald House was so helpful," Nina said. "They cooked meals for us. Anything you needed they would assist you with. There I met other families going through the same thing.”

Strength from adversity

“While I was there I met a girl about 8 years old who was at Ronald McDonald House for four weeks because her brother had cancer," Nina recalled. "The girl said something so profound to me that I have never forgotten it. She stated, ‘I came here with my brother, but I am going to leave without my brother.’ My thought after hearing the girl was that if she can do this, then I could do this, too.” 

She drew her strength from the Ronald McDonald House. Her parents were obviously distraught at this time and with JJ now gone she felt she had to be the strong one in the family. Finding a new normalcy became challenging for Nina. 

When it was time to start the 6th grade that fall, she ended up missing three weeks of school. The next five years of school for her seemed empty. Nina never processed her brother’s death or overcame it. Life felt robotic. Her environment at the school and at home was making her miserable. None of her friends could understand what she was going through. 

At the age of 16, she made a thoughtful decision to turn her life around. She moved to Brooklyn, where her father was currently living, enrolled in an all-girls high school and focused her attention on herself and her ambitions, while seeing a therapist.

“At that time I processed that I can do anything I want. I was not mad at JJ, realizing that what I went through was awful and I needed to move on," she said. "I actually became closer to JJ. He is a huge driving force for what I do. He would have been a great leader.” 

In the spring of last year Nina became a member of Sigma Delta Tau sorority, which has had a great impact on her life. College is more than a degree for her. Having an influence on people’s lives is what motives her. 

Learning to lead

“I love being a leader," Nina said joyfully. "What happened to me has changed me and led me to become a leader. I do everything now to have a personal or amazing connection with someone.”

On Dec. 3, 2017, Nina and her sorority sisters, along with her friends from the fraternity Sigma Tau Chi, supported her by holding a benefit breakfast with the proceeds being donated in JJ’s name to the Ronald McDonald House of Long Island. Nearly everyone in the Greek community came to the benefit and $1,666 went to the charity. It was a very emotional day for her, because she dreamed of that moment and wanted to make a difference. Sigma Delta Tau is planning for another benefit at the end of this year.

Nina’s life has taken different forms. She couldn’t hide from what has happened to her. Her resilience in the face of change has caused her to become a dominant presence in the lives of others. No matter how negative life has seemed, she wants to leave a positive mark.

Her father’s words leave a lasting impression, as well. “My dad tells me I am an amazing human," Nina said. "'Whatever life gives you, you do it in the best possible way you can. I am always so proud of you. You have become the best version of yourself.'"