Ava and Blaire Pospesel always will remember their mom as an incredibly loving and selfless person who put her family above all else.
Vincent Do cherishes the steely determination of his grandmother, who decided 30 years ago that her family needed to flee war-torn Vietnam and make a better life in the United States.
Anni Stringini tells herself to “stay positive, stay strong and believe that anything is possible,” sound advice for a young woman dealing with a rare disorder that has robbed her of some of her vision.
Max Behna believes that selfless choices are the only things that can lift you through difficult times, and he has made plenty of them in helping his dad overcome depression and anxiety.
Madeline Wehking defines diversity in an unusual way, thanks to two deaf grandparents whose struggles to overcome their disability inspire her.
And Sarah Meyers finds joy in the simple act of painting faces because she knows how much it means to a little girl suffering from cancer.
These young women and men are among more than 1,500 freshmen at the University of St. Thomas this fall. They were asked, as part of their enrollment application, to describe an experience that has had a major impact on their life, and many responded with remarkable essays that span a wide gamut of emotions. Their stories are intensely personal, yet each student agreed to share them with St. Thomas magazine in hopes they might cheer, inspire or bring solace to others.
Ava and Blaire Pospesel (top)
Twin sisters Ava and Blaire Pospesel were riding to a lacrosse game the evening of May 22, 2006, in Plymouth, a western suburb of Minneapolis. Mom Jeanette was behind the wheel, with Blaire in the front seat and Ava behind Blaire in the back.
As Ava bent over to put on her cleats, suddenly, with virtually no warning, their Suburban was broadsided by another vehicle and rolled over four times.
“Dirt hit my eyes, like nails pounding into wood, and flooded my mouth as I gasped for air,” Ava wrote. “I felt a huge force hitting me from the left side. My world was spinning around me. Before I knew it, I was looking into the sky. I lay on the tar with a pounding pain of pressure from my waist down. I started yelling, ‘Mom, mom!’ but received no answer.”
Blaire miraculously escaped injury and climbed out of the car. “I saw my sister lying on the road with glass all around her, in pain, shouting for my mother,” she wrote. “I told her everything was going to be okay and that she needed to be strong and stay alive. I then turned and saw my mother 15 feet away … with blood rushing from her forehead. She lay there still and unconscious.”
Paramedics loaded Ava, with a pelvis fractured in three places, two broken ribs and a chipped tailbone, onto a helicopter for a flight to North Memorial Medical Center and then Regions Hospital for surgery. When she woke up in the morning and saw Blaire, her dad Dean and her brother Cole around her bed, “by the look they all had on their faces I had an inkling the worst had happened.”
The ensuing months were full of challenges for the Pospesel family. They went through the heartbreak of Jeanette’s funeral. Ava spent two weeks in the hospital and the rest of the summer in a wheelchair before regaining her mobility and starting her freshman year with Blaire at Wayzata High School, where Cole was a senior. Dean found a new job that would keep him closer to home and began the slow adjustment as a single parent.
“Jeanette was a fantastic mom,” Dean said of his wife of 22 years. They met as students at Gustavus Adolphus College. “She was an amazing woman who shared everything in her life with others. You never questioned her love, and they (he paused to nod at Ava and Blaire) have grown into strong young women as a result of that love.”
Ava worried about how she would endure hardships without the woman she called “my biggest cheerleader.” Blaire discovered her life had taken a 180-degree turn.
“I was terrified, but I knew I had to find a way to persevere,” wrote Ava, who expects to major in business. “I learned to be resilient and face the challenges set before me. I approached every roadblock with faith and support from my family and friends. I knew my mom would want me to be happy.”
“All of the challenges we faced as a family pulled us together and helped us unlock a new sense of strength and determination to rebuild our lives,” wrote Blaire, also a likely business major. “I had to learn to quickly become more mature, independent and most importantly find ways to place the puzzle pieces of my life back together. It has been a difficult journey, but it was one that we were all willing to take to honor my mother.”
Doi and Tre Nguyen raised 10 children on a small farm in Tan An, South Vietnam, not far from the South China Sea. Doi was an Army veteran of 24 years and fished for a living, and Tre helped raise crops and livestock. “We were fortunate that we had just enough to get by,” said Lucy Do, their daughter and Vincent’s mom.
But after the fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War, the new Communist government took away the Nguyens’ land and boat in 1980. Tre decided she had had enough.
“My grandparents had a very major decision to make about trying to escape to America,” Vincent wrote. “My grandfather didn’t really want to go but didn’t want to stay, either. My grandmother, being a strong woman, decided that they were going to escape. This just shows who wore the pants in the family.”
After weeks of planning and stockpiling food and water, the Nguyens and other family members and friends made their move one night. Thirty-two people, including nine-year-old Lucy, crowded onto a boat that sneaked out of a port and headed for the Philippines and freedom.
“We had no compass, no map,” Lucy said. “We just followed the sun and the stars.”
The engine broke down after two days and the boat floated for a day before it was spotted by a small plane. The pilot dropped food and water and radioed for help from a nearby Egyptian freighter, which picked up the group and steamed into Japan five days later.
After a year in Osaka, the Nguyens settled in Seattle. Lucy moved to St. Paul in 1987 to live with a sister and met Long Do, also a Vietnamese refugee. They married and have three children, including Vincent, an Eden Prairie graduate who will major in criminal justice and hopes to become a police officer. His grandmother died in 2007, and his 85-year-old grandfather still lives in Seattle.
“My grandma has influenced me in so many ways,” Vincent wrote. “Now, I am more willing to stand up for what I believe in, even if I may get into a little trouble. Now, I am able to take bigger chances in life knowing that there can often be a good outcome. I also am more optimistic because of her optimism while trapped on the boat drifting aimlessly in the ocean. My grandma has left behind a legacy that cannot be equaled.”
“He told my parents and me that he was sorry, but I was going blind, and there was nothing that he or anyone could do,” she wrote. “I remember my parents blaming themselves for my problem, because the disorder is a hereditary disease, but I knew that it was never their fault.”
Jim and Lynn Stringini had the good sense to get a second opinion. The verdict was hardly less shocking – Anni had Stargardt’s disease, a juvenile form of macular degeneration that affects 30,000 Americans – but she was reassured that she wasn’t going blind. She has very limited central vision but can see peripherally, and she adapts by sitting close to television sets, reading large-type text and listening to audio books.
Anni struggled her first two years at Holy Family High School in Victoria, Minn., partly because she felt “embarrassed to be different,” she wrote. “I remember refusing to get things enlarged because I thought that people would tease me. It only made things harder.”
She persevered, however, and thrived as a junior and senior. She played varsity soccer at Holy Family, earned a black belt in tae kwon do and became junior chair of the Foundation Fighting Blindness, speaking to other teenagers about her disorder. She plans to major in political science and communications and journalism and is interested in law.
“I have learned to accept that my vision does not define me,” she wrote. “It is only a small piece of who I am. … I have learned two things to be absolutely true. The first is to always stay positive. Life will be more fulfilling and worthwhile this way. The second is always staying strong and believing that anything is possible. If a person continues to think things will improve, they will.”
Max Behna remembers the morning in the summer of 2009 when he found his dad standing in the middle of a hallway in their Naperville, Ill., home with a quizzical look on his face. He nearly fainted, but Max caught him before he hit the floor and helped him get to his bedroom.
Wrote Max: “Raising my voice a little, I asked again, ‘Dad, what’s the matter?’ ‘The anxiety!’ he whispered. ‘Too much anxiety. I can’t handle it!’ I knew this was going to be a long morning.”
Max stuck with his dad that morning, and many mornings afterwards. Today, Sherif Behna is a healthy and happy man, thanks to the right medical treatment for his depression, a new job and – perhaps most importantly – a family’s loving care.
The software engineer lost his job in October 2008 and worried how he would support his wife, Carol, a nurse, and their five children. “I thought I was all washed up,” he said. “I had a lot of experience in a narrow field, but why would a company pay twice as much for me as for a college kid?”
Sherif eventually found work as a substitute high school teacher, saw a different psychiatrist who prescribed effective medication, and landed a new job in June. As he looks back on his experience, he credits Max for always being there for him.
“He wrote me a two-page letter, quoting the Bible and telling me how much he loved me,” Sherif said. “It was very moving. I thought to myself, ‘Wow, my 18-year-old child has more insight than I do as an adult!”
Max never gave a second thought about whether to help his dad.
“This past summer (2009) was one of the hardest times of my life,” he wrote. It “was also one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. … Everyone has struggles in life; it is how you choose to act upon them that influences the outcome.”
Max is a member of the St. John Vianney Seminary community at St. Thomas, having thought for a long time about the priesthood. He’ll soon discern if that is to be his vocation.
“We’re all called to something in our lives,” he said in an interview. “God won’t call me to something that won’t bring me joy. Being able to help people and lead them to Christ would make me happy.”
Dolores and Frank Stefanski lost their hearing as infants, Dolores to rubella and Frank to scarlet fever. They met at a club for deaf people more than 50 years ago. She worked in a factory and he was a plumber, and they raised three daughters, all of whom can hear.
They also taught their granddaughter sign language at an early age, and she bonded with them in a wonderfully spiritual way as she grew up in suburban Chicago.
“Imagine living in a world of silence, where your eyes are our ears to the world,” Madeline wrote. “Early in my childhood I learned the meaning of ‘diversity.’ People will usually relate diversity to race, religion and gender, but in my life I have been exposed to another type of diversity. When I was two years old I realized that my grandparents were very unique. The thing that sets them apart from everyone else is they are deaf.”
Madeline, who plans to major in business, always has been impressed with the way her grandparents handled the tasks that everyone else takes for granted – “a single phone call, asking someone for directions or even understanding TV.” In spite of their hardships, “they were able to be part of mainstream America and have productive jobs, be able to purchase and manage a home and raise three successful children.”
Sarah Meyers hesitated when she was asked to run a face-painting booth at a fundraising benefit last year for six-year-old neighbor Emma Phillips, who had cancer. Sarah just didn’t think the booth would raise much money.
She agreed to take on the project, however, “and I was glad that I did,” she wrote. She collected $224 – $1 per face and 50 cents per tattoo – toward the $22,000 raised that evening at the VFW hall, but more importantly she learned a valuable lesson about helping others.
“Seeing (Emma) run around with her friends, laughing and playing, made all of the hard work worthwhile,” said Sarah, who lives in Wyoming, Minn., and will major in biology with aspirations of becoming a veterinarian. “It overwhelmed me how a community can come together during a time of need and contribute even in such harsh economic times.”
Emma, now 7, was diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma, a malignant soft-tissue cancer, in February 2009, when a tumor was discovered in one of her lungs. Despite cyber surgery and frequent chemotherapy and radiation treatments, tumors have developed in other parts of her body. Parents Ted and Lisa say they are determined to help Emma beat the cancer, motivated by her plucky spirit and their love for her.
Emma’s illness has made people close to her realize how fortunate they are to have good health and what it means, Sarah wrote, “to live life to the fullest each and every day.
“Seeing Emma’s joy in such simple activities as riding her bike up and down the street has taught me to not take anything for granted. I realize that there are many people in this world who want nothing more than to be able to do the things that you and I do every day.”
One day in July, Sarah and Emma stopped by the St. Thomas photo studio to have their pictures taken. Sarah pulled out her painting kit and the two took turns painting each other’s faces.
“Have you ever seen anything more precious?” Emma’s dad asked. “God, I hope we can beat this thing. Say a prayer for us.”