After overcoming brain cancer, alumnus Kai DiMino finds strength through theater

Kai on stage at Fresno State

Theater alumnus Kai DiMino was used to people telling him, “You won’t be able to do it.”

Battling a rare childhood brain cancer at a young age, DiMino went through several years of chemotherapy and radiation treatments and was told that he would lose various cognitive, motor, and physical abilities. The long-lasting effects would prevent him from many activities. However, at age seven when he had beaten cancer, he learned to adapt. Although there were lasting cognitive and physiological symptoms relating to development and learning, he wasn’t afraid of challenges.

His love for theater came during high school when he was cast in a parody of the production “Billy the Kid.” The farce aspect had him hooked. He fell in love, especially with how it took an entire team under a shared vision to create something that impacted others.

“There’s a sort of tribalism about it, and it can reach each of us, if we allow it,” said DiMino.

Kai DiMino on stage at Fresno State.
Kai DiMino

While at Fresno State as a Theater Arts major, he worked to pay for his education. He juggled classes, work, and productions. The negativity that others had projected on him following his brain cancer became prominent once again.

“You can’t do it.” He internalized the sentiment and started to believe he may not finish his degree. He hit a low point, falling behind in classes. His strength wavered as graduation seemed out of reach.


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At an opportune time, he joined a college program internship at Walt Disney World.

“It was my first chance at independence, and forced me to really look at my life.”

Taking what he described as one of the best courses in his life, “Marketing You,” he gained direction and clarity–he had somewhere to go and a way to get there. He began to turn his academic career around and everything started to fall into place.

The communal energy of theater pushed him to get better as he worked under the direction of Fresno State theatre faculty Ruth Griffin, Brad Meyers, and J. Daniel Herring. Their wisdom helped him established a strong foundation of habits. DiMino especially enjoyed participating in  Fresno State’s production of “Heathers! The Musical.”  He felt like it was his break out moment.

“I find Kai’s approach to the craft of acting to be positive, energetic, and fun.  Kai makes very creative and specific physical and vocal choices to bring nuanced characters to life without resorting to stereotypical choices. He is a collaborative artist who was always a pleasure to direct. I loved to watch his performances grab an audience emotionally and provocatively,” said J. Daniel Herring, chair of the Department of Theatre and Dance.

“It was an incredible experience, and [I] learned so much not just about acting, but about myself during that process.”

While requesting support from the Dean’s Council, he got a chance to meet Dr. Saúl Jiménez-Sandoval, the Dean of the College of Arts and Humanities at the time.

“Saúl made me feel like I could do anything when I thought I was going to give up,” DiMino recalled warmly.

He held onto the notes he took during the meeting, which often reminded him of the touching encouragement he received from Jiménez-Sandoval and the immense gratitude he felt toward the Dean’s Council. The support made him feel worthy and was exactly the inspiration which allowed him to pursue his passion.

Kai DiMino on stage at Fresno State.
Kai DiMino performs at the Selma Arts Center

Now, DiMino is doing specialized training at the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts (PCPA) in Santa Maria. It’s been “revolutionary” as he quickly became one of the Class Representatives and has been casted in one of the Conservatory Projects.

“The work here is demanding, and all consuming. But there is a certain magic about the people here, students and faculty alike, that makes me feel like not only that I belong, but I was meant to be here, now,” said DiMino.

Production companies, schools, and big-names in the industry, such as Disney, often visit the school to scout for talent. DiMino is aware, keeping these opportunities in mind, but he also knows there is so much more to learn. His current process is focusing on the present.

“I’m trying to absorb everything I can into my bones.”

The College of Arts and Humanities takes pride in supporting the full range of creative and academic endeavors of students and faculty — endeavors made possible through generous gifts made to the Dean’s Council Annual Fund.

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Fresno State's MFA Creative Writing student with focus in Creative Nonfiction. Hmong American writer. President of the Hmong American Ink & Stories 2019-2021.

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