UA Little Rock to honor student who died of cancer with posthumous degree

Tandie Kenser was a senior business major at UA Little Rock who passed away from cancer in 2018 and will receive a posthumous degree during the fall 2019 commencement ceremony. Photo by Ben Krain.

The University of Arkansas at Little Rock will honor a Benton student who passed away from cancer last year with a posthumous business degree during the university’s fall commencement ceremony on Dec. 14. 

Tandie Kenser, 51, of Benton passed away Aug. 24, 2018. The UA Little Rock senior was only 23 credits shy of completing her dream of graduating from college. Kenser’s mother, Gennie Adair, will travel from her home in Vancouver, Canada, to receive her daughter’s degree.

“I feel very honored to get her degree, and Tandie would be too,” Adair said. “It’s wonderful that the university is doing this for her. She had one more year to go, and I really thought she would live long enough. I used to pray that she would live long enough to walk down that stage, but she just didn’t make it.”

When Kenser was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer in 2011, her doctors told her she only had a few years left to live. Kenser considered how she wanted to spend her final years and decided to rectify her only regret: never earning a college degree.

“There’s so many people who think they are too old or it’s too late, but it’s not,” Kenser said in a 2018 interview. “I didn’t want to be anywhere else. I love walking on campus. I like every professor I’ve had. It’s brought me joy.”

In 2015, Kenser joined UA Little Rock with the goal of earning a Bachelor of Business Administration degree in business analytics. With no time to waste, she immediately signed up for 18 credit hours.

Shannon Gwinn, director of Student and Career Services in the College of Business, advised her to start with nine credit hours, a well-intentioned suggestion that was immediately rebuked.

“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, adding that it was the start of a beautiful friendship. 

“Tandie would be thrilled and honored to receive her degree,” Gwinn said. “It was her ‘bucket list,’ and she knew she didn’t have much time to earn her degree. Life threw a lot to Tandie, and she overcame it all except for cancer. I can only imagine the party she would be throwing for her family and friends to celebrate this.”

Kenser did get the opportunity to celebrate her educational achievements. She completed 90 of the 120 credit hours she needed to graduate and was taking two additional classes when she entered hospice care on June 14, 2018.

“She called me every single day,” Adair said. “She had never complained until the last phone call when she was taking summer classes. She called me and said, ‘I don’t know what I’ve read.’ She was so sad that she couldn’t comprehend what she read. That was the beginning of the end.”

Instead of a funeral, Kenser told her family she wanted a party to celebrate life. The celebration, which included a mock graduation, was held June 30, 2018, at the home of Kenser’s daughter, Jessie Wright, in Bismarck, Arkansas, with faculty, staff, and classmates from the College of Business in attendance.

Dean Jane Wayland recalls how excited Kenser was to wear a graduation cap and gown that UA Little Rock Campus Bookstore gave her as a gift.

“Tandie was an incredible woman,” Wayland said. “She embraced learning all she could even during the most difficult times during her illness. She participated fully in all the opportunities of the college and encouraged her fellow students. She made friends easily and instilled joy to all around her.”

During her college career, Kenser strived to be the best. She maintained a 4.0 GPA, all while serving as ambassador for the College of Business who constantly hosted study sessions for her classmates.

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. Photo by Ben Krain.
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. Photo by Ben Krain.

“Tandie was simply amazing in so many ways,” Gwinn said. “She formed study groups with other students for almost every class she was in. She never gave a student an answer, but brought them along in the journey of learning how to achieve the answer. She was responsible for bringing the Reality Fair to our college.”

Similar to the Game of Life board game, participants in a Reality Fair choose a career with a salary. They go to stations to make selections for housing, transportation, insurance, healthcare, and then must make a balanced budget.

“We have continued to do the Reality Fair and have expanded it to high schools,” Gwinn said. “We went to Hall High School this semester, and it was well received from the students. That is because of Tandie and her passion for financial literacy.”

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 always wanted to keep that 4.0,” Adair said. “She felt she would let me down if she got less than 100 percent. I told her that was garbage. She could never let me down. The one thing I can say about going to the university is that she absolutely loved it. I really believe this is what kept her alive long past her expected survival. She only had a 25 percent chance of living two years, and she lived seven years and a month.”

Last year, Adair started a scholarship in her daughter’s name to benefit non-traditional students attending the College of Business, and she is looking forward to meeting the first recipient of the scholarship during her trip to Arkansas. Adair and Kenser, who were both working single mothers during their lives, wanted to help single parents who are going to college.

“I would say to younger students that it’s never too late to do what you want,” Adair said. “I didn’t go into policing until I was in my 30s. I was about the oldest one in the police academy at the time, and I was in the top of my class. Tandie and I are so alike in so many ways. When you want something when you are older, you do it because you want to, not because you have to. I think we are all capable of things far greater than we think we are. Hopefully, Tandie’s scholarship fund will help someone every year who really needs it. Tandie knew about the scholarship and was really thrilled that people would know how hard she tried to finish.”

While Kenser will not get to walk across the stage to receive her own diploma this fall, her mother believes she found a sense of peace in the months before she died and no longer held any regrets about pursuing a college degree.

“Life is not fair,” Kenser said in 2018. “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.”

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