Written by Mialise Carney, COSS Communications Student Assistant

Graduate Dean’s Medalist Traci Arbios didn’t know she had a genetic heart disorder until she woke up in the ICU in 2015. She was in a coma for 11 days after being airlifted from Fresno to San Francisco when doctors believed they would have to give Arbios a heart transplant. Instead, Arbios was fitted with an ICD or “robot heart” as she calls it, which monitored her heart and gave shocks when necessary. 

“The hardest part, the weirdest thing was recognizing how much impact you have on people’s lives when you’re not even trying. I put my family in such an awful ordeal, and I never would have chosen this awful ordeal, I would have done anything to avoid it if I had any inkling that I had this genetic disorder,” Arbios said. 

In retrospect, Arbios believes she started experiencing symptoms of her heart condition, cardiomyopathy, in 2013 when she began experiencing incredible exhaustion and fatigue. She had heart palpitations, but had been told by several other women her age with biological children that it was common so she didn’t worry. She responded to the fatigue by becoming more athletic, eating well and participating in a number of cycling events and triathlons. 

“I started to feel better, but didn’t understand that the slow down I was experiencing was ventricular tachycardia, cardiomyopathy. I was experiencing a drop in heart muscle function, I didn’t have enough oxygen to my brain. I thought what I was going through was what everyone was going through,” Arbios said. 

After the event, Arbios, mother of seven children, took the next three to four years to rest, rehab and recover. Then, doctors replaced the ICD with a full pacemaker which changed her life again, for the better.

“Suddenly I was getting oxygen to my brain, it absolutely increased my heart function so I could suddenly think more cogently. That’s when I recognized after about a year that I could go back to school and complete the dream I’d always had to go back and get my masters,” Arbios said.

From August 2000 up until her heart event in November 2015, Arbios worked on and off for The Fresno Bee. Born and raised in Santa Rosa, California, she went to UC Davis for undergraduate and majored in dramatic arts and political science. She got married right out of college, had children, moved to DC to work before moving to Fresno to raise her children around their family. She began working for The Fresno Bee as an online designer and manager of online advertising for about ten or eleven years. She also worked in several other areas and projects, like creating a women’s news website with her friends, co-hosting morning radio on K-Jewel, and managing social media. She also oversaw the Central Valley Moms column and curated the site, writing lifestyle and DIY posts. 

“In terms of where I was in my career, I was pretty comfortable. I had wanted to go back and get my masters, but it wasn’t a part of the layout. I was just living the life of a working mom. That’s where I was. I loved working for the Bee but I always had dreams of going on and getting my masters.” 

Once Arbios recovered from her heart event, she decided to pursue a masters in history at Fresno State. She hadn’t been a history major in undergraduate, but chose the degree because she wanted to learn more about the past in order to understand what was happening now and in the future. As an older student in the classroom, she doubted herself and her place in the graduate classroom.

“I had the worst imposter syndrome in the world, I was convinced I didn’t belong there. All these young people were using words like intersectionality and pedagogy and agency, vocabulary I didn’t understand,” she said, laughing. 

While at Fresno State, Arbios worked for the Fresno State Disability Services and one of her coworkers told her that she should talk to her professors about her concerns. Due to her heart event, she has a tendency to lose her train of thought and occasionally stutter, and she was afraid it would happen if she spoke during class. With the advice of her coworker, she decided to talk to one of her professors about her concerns. 

“I was deeply ashamed that I have brain damage and I didn’t want anyone to know. And I did, I spoke to my first professor about it. I explained it, I was embarrassed, but she was amazing. She responded by sharing her experiences. She said, you belong here like everyone else,” Arbios said. 

In the two-year masters program, Arbios immersed herself in the intense work and rigorous program. It was normal to read two books a week, needing to fully understand theory she had never studied before. In her first semester, she took 200A which taught her how to write a historiography. She was expected to know what her thesis was going to be about in the first week, and immediately turned to the internet for advice. The internet said, write what you know, so she looked to her career in journalism.

“A girl friend of mine, Gail Marshall, worked at The Fresno Bee in the women’s department. I was blown away that there was something called that, that women weren’t allowed in other departments yet. That’s where the thesis came from, this amazing conversation with Gail where she told me about the pantsuit protest. The women at The Fresno Bee made a mark in changing company policy, eventually integrating women into all parts of the newsroom,” she said. 

Her thesis, The Toy Department on Lollipop Lane: The Women’s Liberation Movement and the Transformation of The Fresno Bee, focuses on the integration of the newsroom, especially how her friend Gail was a forerunner in integrating women into the newsroom. In writing her thesis, Arbios worked with Dr. Blain Roberts and her committee members who provided guidance as Arbios completed her thesis, especially during the pandemic where the collegial atmosphere had to be moved online. 

“I’m grateful to Blain Roberts. My committee has been tremendous and Dr. Roberts has been a phenomenal advisor. She’s such a good editor, so knowledgeable. I am very fortunate for their assistance and support,” Arbios said. “Also I like my husband, he’s a good guy. I couldn’t have done anything without his support.”

Arbios didn’t expect to learn that she had been chosen for the 2021 Graduate Dean’s Medalist for the College of Social Sciences.

She said, “That was a little surprising. I was very taken aback, I did not anticipate that. I was shocked, amazed.”