When Tandie Kenser was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer seven years ago, doctors gave her a couple of years to live. She knew she was on borrowed time, and she had only one regret: never going to college.
Shannon Gwinn, director of Student and Career Services, advised her to start with nine credit hours, to ease into the college workload.
“She pointed her finger at me, and said, ‘Not only am I going to take 18 hours, I’m going to make a 4.0,’” Gwinn recalled. “And she has. She had a good career in the credit union world, but she had never taken time to go to college, and that was on her bucket list.”
Tandie, an ambassador for the College of Business, has completed 90 of the 120 credit hours she needs for a bachelor’s degree, all while maintaining a 4.0 GPA. She’s enrolled in two online classes this summer – History of Civilization II and Financial Markets – that she will finish as time allows.
“There’s so many people who think they are too old or it’s too late, but it’s not,” she said.
On June 14, though, she entered home hospice, and her prognosis is now “weeks but not months.” Instead of a funeral, she told her family that she wants a party to celebrate life. Her family quickly stepped in to make it happen.
“There’s no more opportunity for her to get better,” said her mother, Gennie Adair of Vancouver, Canada, who is staying with her. “It’s sad, but this is the very best way for her to be able to participate in her own party, and it will be good.”
The celebration, which included a mock graduation, was held June 30 at the Friendship home of Tandie’s daughter, Jessie Wright. Tandie also has a daughter, Kaitlin Tate of Fort Worth; a stepdaughter, Kim Kenser of Little Rock; and a stepson, Will Kenser of Gulf Shores, Alabama. She has seven grandchildren and one on the way.
Tandie visited faculty and staff in the College of Business, and Dean Jane Wayland gave her a graduation cap and gown that Tandie wore at her party.
Adair has set up a $25,000 endowment that will provide scholarships for future non-traditional students in the College of Business. Contributions are also accepted online.
Tandie, now 51, lives in Benton with her husband, David, who is a veterans services coordinator for Arkansas Hospice. They married on May 1, 2011, the day after Tandie finished her end-of-the-tax-season accounting rush. Just a few weeks later – on July 20 – she was diagnosed with cancer.
She has tried chemotherapy and radiation, but her particular cancer involves the presence of a mutated KRAS gene, which means her tumors do not respond to many therapies. She has also sought alternative therapies, including hyperbaric oxygen therapy and had numerous surgeries to remove tumors. In 2014, her cancer metastasized to her lung, necessitating more surgery.
Adair recalled a time when her daughter had undergone eight hours of chemotherapy and insisted that she be taken directly to UA Little Rock afterward so that she could attend an extra-credit lecture about earthquakes.
“She was so determined to keep that 4.0,” Adair said. “If it wasn’t for her going to the university, I don’t know that she would be here. I think it prolonged her life. She had something she was working toward and getting to her goal.”
Tandie, who describes herself as a “Type A” personality, has a sense of her cognitive decline and limitations but also has found peace. She sold her motorcycle. She’s put reading aside. She’s spending time with family and friends. As for pursuing a college education, she has no regrets.
“I didn’t want to be anywhere else,” Tandie said. “I love walking on campus. I like every professor I’ve had. It’s brought me joy.
“Life is not fair,” she says matter-of-factly. “Fair is just a four-letter word at our house. I’m not a sad person, though I leak a little now and then. I never thought I was getting out of this alive, so I’m redirecting. I’ve been able to give things away and see people enjoy them. I have a lot of love from my family and support from my school, and I know that I’ve been very blessed. I don’t have one thing that I wanted to do that I haven’t done.”
Tandie Kenser (seated) and her mother, Gennie Adair (center) visit Cindy Wallace (left) and Shannon Gwinn (right) in the UA Little Rock College of Business. Photos by Benjamin Krain