In Sarah Tennyson’s bedroom, the dozens of cards featuring inspirational quotes only seem to outnumber the smiley-faced stickers by a few.
“I like to stay positive and keep a positive outlook on life,” the 30-year-old said.
It's an optimism, she admitted, that at first might seem odd coming from someone once kept alive by a feeding tube; from someone who, long before and well after the feeding tube, has moved through the world largely via wheelchair.
In Sarah Tennyson's world, though, there's plenty to celebrate. And that celebration is sure to grow more jubilant later this week when the Saginaw Township native joins more than 1,000 of her Saginaw Valley State University student peers on stage during commencement ceremonies.
Tennyson, a communications major, will participate in the festivities Saturday at 11 a.m. in O'Neill Arena, when students from the colleges of Arts & Behavioral Sciences; Education; and Science, Engineering & Technology are honored. A 7:30 p.m. Friday ceremony will feature students in the colleges of Business & Management and Health & Human Services.
Tennyson has two classes still to complete, but will be participating in the May Commencement ceremony, which she finds fitting. She always imagined celebrating her accomplishment in the mellow comforts of springtime. It was a fantasy that pre-dated her brush with a disease that nearly prevented her from living to see such a day at all.
Tennyson was no stranger to overcoming obstacles when that dangerous medical condition upended her world during her late 20s. Her first medical obstacle arrived on the day of her birth. Born three months earlier than expected, Tennyson as a baby was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder that impairs motor functions. As a result, she has spent her life in a wheelchair.
More medical hardships followed, but Tennyson continued to pursue college education, and she has made quite an impression on Dick Thompson, SVSU ombudsman, whose tenure at SVSU began in 1970. He called Tennyson “one of the most positive and caring students I have ever had the pleasure to work with.”
Thompson helped Tennyson navigate some of the logistical challenges that emerged when her medical condition threatened to derail her studies.
“I admire her for her courage and determination,” he said. “She is the best of the best.”
During her K-12 years, Tennyson attended a school for individuals with disabilities before eventually graduating from Community Baptist Christian High School in Saginaw. She still lives in the home where she was raised, and said her parents and older sister — along with a deep faith in her Christian beliefs — provided a support system that allowed her eventually to pursue a postsecondary education. She earned an associate’s degree from Delta College in 2009, and then enrolled at SVSU.
Tennyson’s tenure at the university, though, was derailed five years ago when she suffered what she initially believed was a “stomach bug.” The problem persisted for about a week by the time Tennyson was scheduled to participate in SVSU’s Sims Public Speaking Competition in November 2012.
“I told myself, ‘I’m not going to miss this speech competition,” she said, “but by the end of the day, I was in the ER, vomiting.”
The situation grew serious enough that medics — fearing for her life — removed her gall bladder and inserted a feeding tube into her body.
“They didn’t know what was going on at first,” she said.
Eventually, doctors diagnosed her with gastroparesis, which is a disorder that stops or slows the movement of food from the stomach to the small intestine.
For a time, her weight dropped from 100 lbs. to 75 lbs. Problems persisted until she switched to a new doctor, whose prescriptions helped her recover some of her physical strength in the ensuing years.
“I’m not where I want to be quite yet,” she said. “I’m getting there.”
The medical challenges slowed — but didn’t stop — the pursuit of her bachelor’s degree. She returned to SVSU in fall 2013 but dropped out before the end of the semester.
“Trying to get myself back to school was a roller coaster ride,” she said. “I would take two steps forward, then one step back. There were times when I didn’t think I was going to be able to finish.”
She returned to SVSU again in August 2016, when she signed up for a single kinesiology course.
“I was in physical therapy at the time and I wanted to know how my body worked,” she said.
Despite falling seriously ill again in November 2016, she has remained enrolled at the university, with expectations that she will earn her degree this year. Along with her family, friends, faith and her medical support team, Tennyson credited SVSU staff and faculty with aiding her in those academic pursuits.
“I’ve had a huge support system,” she said.
While she is quick to give others credit, Thompson said Tennyson’s sense of determination and persevering spirit were the most important factors in her accomplishments.
“Despite all her challenges, Sarah never gave up on her dreams,” he said.
After earning her bachelor’s degree, she hopes to pursue a career helping others with disabilities and social challenges as they strive to reach their potential. That sort of ambition is familiar to Tennyson.
“Everyone has their difficulties,” she said. “Some are just more visible than others, like mine. I had a lot of support to get to where I am, and now I want to give back to others.”