It was a sight that Sara Schaefer will always remember.
Standing on a quiet William Woods campus on the sunny afternoon of Sunday, May 21, Schaefer thought she was there to take photos with her family in her cap and gown to commemorate her graduation from The Woods, all after the most unforeseen of circumstances forced her to miss the traditional on-campus ceremony on April 29th.
Suddenly, she spotted the entire William Woods administration, including President Jeremy Moreland, Provost Dr. Aimee Sapp, University Vice-President Dr. Ted Blashak and Chief Advancement Officer Tony Andenoro – all wearing full academic regalia – walking across campus towards her as she posed for photos! The University’s leadership team was there to surprise her, formally presenting her with her cherished diploma, with a bachelor’s degree in Psychology and minor in American Sign Language, that she was unable to receive on campus with her classmates on April 29.
“I heard music and saw everyone walking towards me and was in shock,” Schaefer said of the impromptu commencement ceremony. “I never expected something that special and personal – it was very emotional and I fumble over words remembering it because I get choked up.”
It was the moving culmination of a ten-year academic journey that included one of life’s most devastating disruptions, but Sara had made it. And The Woods leadership team dropped everything on a Sunday afternoon to be there, and show her how much they appreciated it.
Commencement Day 2023 was a festive day of celebration and recognition of achievement for hundreds of William Woods graduates and their families and friends.
For Sara Schaefer, due to finally walk across the stage after a determined ten years of study to receive her bachelor’s degree, the celebration was instead a quiet one at home with her family. It may not have been the traditional commencement experience on campus that she had once envisioned, but then her life experience over the past year has been anything but traditional for the wife and young mother.
A year ago last summer, Sara’s youngest child Ezra was diagnosed with a very rare form of cancer called Alveolar Rhabdomyosarcoma, or ARMS for short. The initial diagnosis for Ezra was rather grim, as doctors said his condition could worsen as time went on during what would be Sara’s senior year at William Woods.
“Last summer, we had a lot of decisions to make, including if I could continue my senior year at William Woods,” Schaefer said. “It had taken me ten years to get to this point, with a lot of starts and stops due to life. William Woods felt like a family to me, with the teachers really caring and getting to know each student. “
She spoke with two of her main professors, Julian Hertzog and Jes Brown, and asked their opinion if it was possible to even attempt to complete her degree due to the anticipated staggering number of days she would have to miss.
“They assured me that no matter what, we could work it out, that I needed to finish and that they were in my corner,” Schaefer continued. “With that reassurance and the support of my husband and loved ones, I continued on. No matter how many days I needed to miss, or unusual ways to make up points, even while Zooming into class while in the hospital while they followed Ezra’s journey on Facebook, they were always there for me.”
As the promise of Spring arrived in 2023, the Schaefers were overjoyed that Ezra began doing better than his doctors had expected in battling cancer, and arrived home in April after a lengthy stay in the hospital. Sara was also set to cross the finish line in her academic journey, set to receive that hard-earned diploma on April 29th, Commencement Day at The Woods.
But Ezra, still very weak from chemotherapy and with virtually no immune system, had to be admitted back into the hospital during graduation week when he developed a fever. He was released two days before commencement day, but doctors determined that he wasn’t healthy enough to be around people.
So commencement day for Sara Schaefer would be held at home, among her beloved family. After ten years, she would not have that experience of having the University’s leadership team, clad in academic regalia, handing her her diploma and personally wishing her congratulations. Or so she thought.
The Super Sam Foundation, a mid-Missouri based pediatric cancer foundation with a mission focused on raising awareness, funding and support for families of children with cancer, had been providing valuable support to the Schaefer family in Ezra’s battle. Cassie Santhuff, founder of Super Sam, had arranged with William Woods to have Sara’s picture taken on campus in her cap and gown, with her husband and children, once Ezra felt up to it. They arranged to have the photos taken on Sunday, May 21, on the bridge across Senior Lake on an otherwise empty campus.
But Sara didn’t know was that the plans secretly involved the participation of some rather prominent individuals from the William Woods administration.
“I started to get suspicious when I saw that Cassie was recording,” Schaefer said. “She’s an amazing woman who always has something up her sleeve. I could not believe they would do something so special. William Woods treated me like family as a student and showed support personally now as an alumnus. I will always think of them as family.”
The WWU leadership team conferred Sara’s degree, and had her read the alumni oath. She wore her Beads of Courage with her regalia, with each bead representing a different treatment of challenge that Ezra faced through his battle, and posed for photos at the iconic William Woods W-W-U letters statue.
“Moments like this are my favorite part of higher education at William Woods,” said Provost Aimee Sapp. “We take great pride in meeting each student where they are. It was a pleasure to spend a Sunday afternoon with Sara and her family – it might not have been a conventional commencement ceremony, but it was the right ceremony at the right time for Sara and that is what made it so special.”
In the end, the “commencement day” that the Schaefers enjoyed on May 21, 2023 will resonate with the family for years to come. But it won’t be the last – Sara’s daughter Breanna will join the WWU family herself, as a first-year student, this Fall!