When Anni Stringini wrote an essay as part of her enrollment application to St. Thomas in 2009, she acknowledged she had gone through "many challenging periods" in her young life as a result of an incurable vision disorder. "Why me?" she asked herself over and over. "Why me?"
She answered the question in her own essay. As "devastating" as her condition was, she would not let it define her or restrict her. She knew she had "to always stay positive" and believe "that anything is possible. If a person continues to think things will improve," she wrote, "they will."
Four years later, Stringini is graduating from St. Thomas. She carries the same optimism and has the same attitude of viewing "the glass half full instead of half empty." And while she closed her essay with a simple hope "to succeed like everyone else," today that hope has been replaced by a firmer realization that she indeed will succeed.
"Everyone struggles with something," she said in an interview this spring. "This is just my disability. To give up is to say you can’t win. I won’t allow my disease to define me, but I have to adapt to living a different way. I have a great life, and I won’t get disappointed with my vision issues."
Stringini credits a strong support system of family, friends, students and faculty for helping her through the rough times and making the accommodations that have allowed her not only to survive, but to thrive. St. Thomas was the right choice for her, she says, and she will be ever grateful for an education and an environment that helped her move on with her life.
Stringini’s sentiments are shared by six classmates – Ava and Blaire Pospesel, Vincent Do, Sarah Meyers, Madeline Wehking and Max Behna – who also were profiled in the fall 2010 issue of St. Thomas magazine. All but one (Do) will graduate this May. As they prepare for new challenges and opportunities, they talked about their St. Thomas experiences and the influence the university has had on their lives.
Majors: Political Science and Philosophy
Anni Stringini began having vision problems when she was 11. She and her family would not accept the initial diagnosis – that she was going blind – and got a second opinion. She had Stargardt’s disease, a rare disorder that limits her central (but not peripheral) vision and affects 30,000 Americans. She struggled during her first two years in high school but went on to play soccer, earn a black belt in taekwondo and get involved in the Foundation Fighting Blindness.
She adapted in classrooms at St. Thomas by reading large-type text, including notes taken by other students, because it was difficult to read what professors wrote on blackboards. She took exams on computers in the Disability Services office by using software that enlarged type on the screen.
"I got an iPad the second semester of my freshman year," she said. "It is a godsend. I can blow things up and easily read them."
Stringini holds out hope that advances in research will lead to a cure for Stargardt’s disease in her lifetime. A cure would allow her to do what most of us take for granted, such as driving and, most importantly, seeing the people she loves.
"I have a serious boyfriend, and I really can’t see his face from across the room even though we have dated five years," she said. "That’s my dream – to be able see his face and, one day, the faces of my kids. To be what people consider ‘normal’ would be a big deal for me."
In the meantime, Stringini will move on with her life. She plans to work for a year, preferably in human resources, before returning to school for a law degree or a joint degree in law and business. She envisions a career in human resources.
"With my disability, I always have had to advocate for myself and protect myself," she said. "I love advocating for others, too, so I’d like to do some kind of legal advocacy."
Regardless of what she does, "I will always stay positive," she said, repeating the words she wrote in her admissions essay. "I wouldn’t have it any other way."
Major: Criminal Justice
As a teenager, Vincent Do always looked to his grandmother for motivation, and he believes her legacy will serve him well as an adult.
Tre Nguyen and her husband, Doi, raised 10 children on a small farm in South Vietnam before she decided they would flee the country in 1980 because of Communist rule. They crowded onto a boat with 32 people, including Lucy, their 9-year-old daughter, and headed for freedom. Lucy ended up in Minnesota and has three children, including Vincent.
"My grandma has influenced me in so many ways," he wrote in his applications essay. "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."
Do arrived at St. Thomas thinking he wanted to become a police officer, and he never changed his mind. He will take five years to graduate, and he hopes his experience as an Orono police reserve officer will be beneficial preparation.
"It goes back to kindergarten and a reserve officer I knew in our school," he said. "He loved his job and I thought, ‘One day, I want to be like him.’ I thought about my grandma and the injustices she suffered in Vietnam, and I told myself that being a police officer would be a good way for me to make a difference."
Do considered himself "shy and reserved" as a freshman and realized he needed to be more outgoing to get ahead. Professors always helped him when he struggled in class, and he learned to slow down, be patient and deal with issues one at a time – all attributes for success in his career.
"I want to become a sergeant," he said. "I could go higher, but then I would be chained to a desk. I want to be out on the streets. It’s my calling."
Ava (right) and Blaire Pospesel
Majors: Marketing (Ava) and Finance (Blair)
Ava and Blaire Pospesel have grown up a lot in their years together at St. Thomas.
The twin sisters, as you might expect, are virtually inseparable. They lived on different floors in Dowling Hall as freshmen, but since have lived together off campus. They are business majors. They played lacrosse. They took the same London Business Semester.
So it should not be surprising that their answers to questions about four years at St. Thomas are strikingly similar. Their bottom line: They grew in ways they never imagined and they are surprised the time went so quickly.
"Coming into St. Thomas, I didn’t have a broad perspective on life," Ava said. "College expanded my outlook and gave me insights on who I was. I grew friendships and have deep connections because of the St. Thomas network."
"The St. Thomas community is so strong," Blaire said. "I’ll keep the friendships I made here for the rest of my life."
Friendships have sustained the sisters through difficult times, including the death of their mom, Jeanette, in a traffic accident in 2006 when their SUV was broadsided and rolled four times. Ava’s injuries included a fractured pelvis and broken ribs. Blaire escaped injury and climbed out of the car, only to see her mom unconscious and her sister in pain.
They reflected on the tragedy in their application essays. Ava worried how she would live "without my biggest cheerleader," and Blaire wrote, "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."
The sisters still feel the loss eight years later, "but it’s a different kind of pain," Ava said. "Maybe time transforms pain. The grieving process goes through stages. The hardest thing now is my friends at St. Thomas never will be able to meet her."
They show home videos of their mom to friends, "and we all talk about our childhood and our memories," Blaire said. "A lot of who we are today comes from our mom and how she raised us. We think of her and how she would want us to be strong women."
They are exactly that, says their dad, Dean.
"Developing a sense of self and character is always a work in progress, and Ava and Blaire have done it in a community that cares," Dean said. "I am a proud dad, and I know their mom is proud of them, too. I see a lot of their mom in both girls."
They expect to go in different directions after graduation – at first, at least. Ava is interested in a marketing career and Blaire in financial services, but one day they might join forces.
"A and B Inc.," Ava said. "It’s a lofty goal, but definitely a goal."
A defining experience for Sarah Meyers in high school was to run a face-painting booth at a fundraising benefit for Emma Phillips, a 6-year-old neighbor girl who had cancer. Meyers raised $224 and learned a valuable lesson during the process.
"Seeing her run around with her friends, laughing and playing, made all of the hard work worthwhile," Meyers wrote in her application essay. "It overwhelmed me how a community can come together during a time of need."
She feels the same way today and always looks for ways to do acts of kindness. "If you know someone needs help," she said, "never brush it aside, even if it’s just listening to somebody who wants to talk."
Meyers enrolled at St. Thomas to major in biology, with thoughts of becoming a veterinarian, but an internship at Sea Life Minnesota Aquarium her sophomore year changed her mind. She became an aquarist there last summer and takes care of the sea horses exhibit. "I just fell in love working with these animals," she said, and she hopes to work there full time after graduation.
Meyers is encouraged that Emma, now 11, remains an active girl. She was diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma, a malignant soft-tissue cancer, after a lung tumor was discovered. Tumors developed in other parts of her body, but she has survived a variety of treatments.
"She has her good days and bad days," said Emma’s father Ted, "but the important thing is she is still with us. Life deals you lemons, and you have to add sugar to make lemonade."
Maddie Wehking sees similarities between her grandparents and the people she met during St. Thomas study abroad trips, and they all provide motivation for her.
Her grandparents lost their hearing as infants but married, held good jobs and raised a family. Wehking learned sign language from her grandparents at an early age, and they gave her a new definition of "diversity," she wrote in her application essay. "They opened my eyes to see a broader spectrum of the challenges people have to endure."
She felt the same about people she met during January Term trips overseas as a junior and senior.
"Grandma and Grandpa took what they had and made the most of it," she said. "Their positive attitude inspired me, just as the people in Thailand and South Africa did. Some of them live in difficult conditions, but they still live life to the fullest."
Wehking has tried to do the same at St. Thomas. She was on two national championship dance teams as a freshman and sophomore but left after a knee injury. Her love of cooking led her to conduct random research online and she discovered the Ballymaloe Cookery School on an organic farm in Ireland. She will enroll there this fall and hopes to blend her passion for cooking and marketing to figure out a career, perhaps opening her own restaurant.
"It’s not like me to do something completely off the path," she said, but she feels she may not grow to her full potential if she doesn’t explore the Ireland opportunity. "As long as you are on a path, that’s OK. Sometimes you need to fail to figure out who you want to be."
Wehking will most remember St. Thomas for "a small-school environment that made me see bigger. You get everyone’s little stories, and my experiences with roommates and friends have led me to be more accepting of people."
Majors: Catholic Studies and Philosophy
Max Behna arrived at St. Thomas having thought a long time about the priesthood. He believed that living in the St. John Vianney Seminary community would help him discern any vocation, and he said at the time, "God won’t call me to something that won’t bring me joy."
Four years later, Behna is ready to take the next step. He will enter Mundelein Seminary near Chicago in August and hopes to be ordained a priest in the Diocese of Joliet in 2018. What once was "a scary thought" is a step closer to reality, and he considers a dinner meeting with two priests during his junior year in high school as a key influence.
"They convinced me through their words and actions that I could be happy as a priest," Behna said. "They told me I needed to trust God’s goodness. After that realization, the priesthood became much more attractive even though I still had some questions and doubts."
His time at St. Thomas and SJV gave him certainty, he said, "and that leaves me with a lot of peace and joy." He gained special insights through apostolic outreach experiences, including teaching religious education and working at a home for the mentally ill.
"The last four years have been life-changing," he said. "Seminary life is not just learning how to be a priest but how to be a better person. I have learned so much more about myself, my God and my faith."
In his application essay, Behna recalled how he had helped his father deal with anxiety and depression after losing his job. He thought he was "all washed up," but his son’s support and love proved otherwise.
"I did not realize it then but these small but positive acts of kindness and sacrifice for my dad began to have an effect on me as well … and improved my sense of responsibility and maturity," he wrote. "Many choices can be made in difficult times. Deciding to make self-less choices is ultimately what gets you through them."
The experience surprised Behna in how it showed his strength of character, but what’s important to him is how "it all worked out for the best" and that his father is doing well. "I knew God would provide," Behna said. "I was just lucky to be there."
Read more from St. Thomas magazine.