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Fordham Mourns the Passing of Rising Senior Tessa Burns

Elizabeth Tessa Burns, a rising senior at Fordham College at Lincoln Center and a food blogger who loved to share stories and photos about her food adventures with family and friends, died from acute lymphoblastic leukemia on June 8. She was 21.

“It is heartbreaking to lose someone so young, and so full of joy for life,” said Joseph M. McShane, S.J., president of Fordham. “Tessa was what we hope every student to be: kind, intellectually curious, and self-aware. I know the Fordham community joins me in keeping Tessa’s family, loved ones, and friends in their thoughts and prayers.”

Originally from Charlottesville, Virginia, Burns moved with her family to Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Orlando, and Indiana. She attended Carmel High School, where she was a member of several student clubs, including Spanish Club, National Honor Society, and student government. As a member of the student government, she helped to organize fundraising events for a local children’s hospital—the same place where she was treated for her cancer. In one year, the high school students raised more than $453,000 to support pediatric care and research, she wrote in her college application to Fordham. 

“I have had the chance to build relationships and mentor fellow patients who are feeling the same way I did and show them how to keep fighting,” Burns wrote. “These moments are times that I will cherish forever.”

Burns’ leukemia returned in October 2021. She underwent treatment from 2021 to 2022 at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan, and she was on medical leave for the spring semester.

“Tessa loved life, she loved meeting people,” said her mother, Jill Burns, adding that she was known to people as “Tessa.” “Every stranger was a friend she hadn’t met yet. She was looking forward to studying abroad in Paris in the spring semester.”

A Foodie Who Loved Sustainable Recipes 

In her profile on WayUp, a job site for college students and recent graduates, she wrote about her passion for food culture. In high school, she created a health-food Instagram account, @therawalmond, to encourage herself to eat healthier. Her posts begin in fall of 2019, the same time she started school at Fordham. Over the next three years, she shared vibrant photos about her food adventures in New York City and beyond, including meals from new restaurants and recipes from other food bloggers. She also developed her own recipes, including vegan apple cinnamon tarts. It is clear from her Instagram feed that she loved baking. Her feed is flooded with photos of bread—most notably, pumpkin bread. Her final post, from March 17, features shakshuka from a bistro in Indiana. 

Teaching Lessons on Acceptance and Gratitude

The goal of her food blog was to show her peers that it’s not hard to be healthy and that healthy food can be delicious, too, she told The Observer in 2020. But some of her posts take on a more personal tone.

In November 2020, she wrote about the importance of embracing your imperfections. She posted a photo of a discolored scar on her leg from a muscle infection, back when her immune system was weak from leukemia and the chemotherapy that treated her cancer. 

“We all have things we dislike about ourselves, but we just gotta accept whatever those things are. … We all just need to look at the things we don’t like about ourselves and appreciate what they’ve taught us,” she wrote. 

‘I Would Not Exchange Being Sick for a Blissful Life’

Burns was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia during her sophomore year of high school. Thanks to her support system at school and at home, she was able to graduate on time. 

In her college application essay to Fordham, she wrote about her experience with cancer. In the spring of 2016, she was wheelchair-bound with a feeding tube in her nose. She experienced tough treatments, including chemotherapy. But during her cancer treatment, she said she met the most amazing people—“doctors, nurses, friends, strangers”—who inspired her and changed her outlook on life. 

“I would not exchange being sick for a blissful life because I grew as a person immensely. The people I met helped me grow and realize that life is about the little things, laughter is the best medicine, you can do anything that you put your mind towards, and positivity changes everything,” she wrote in her personal essay. “Now, I am physically and mentally capable of anything.” 

“Tessa loved Fordham,” her mother said. Burns majored in cultural anthropology and minored in fashion studies, according to her mother, who said her academic interests complemented one another. “She was interested in the way culture influenced fashion.”

Burns is survived by her mother, Jill; her father, Robert; sisters Sara and Ana; and brother Niall—she was the youngest sibling. The family will hold a celebration of life for Burns in Carmel, on July 10. Condolences may be sent to R. Cartland, Jill, Sara, Ana, and Niall Burns at 13534 Brentwood Lane, Carmel, I.N., 46033. 

“People often take time for granted. We are so busy with our lives that we don’t open our eyes to how other people see the world. Personal experience has taught me that we have a given amount of time to make an impact or change in someone’s life,” Burns wrote in her college application essay. “We can learn so much from each other, we just have to seize our opportunity.”

—Bob Howe contributed reporting.


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