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From trauma to triumph: A student who never lost hope

May 3, 2017

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for spring 2017 commencement. See more graduates here.

Nearly 60 years old, Cindi Tanner isn’t your typical student at Arizona State University.

Baking cookies for her classmates, sitting in the front row for every class and craving knowledge, information and resources were cornerstones of her educational emergence.

“My story is a little bit different because I’m older,” said Tanner, a transfer student from GateWay Community College. “I had to work so much harder to be competitive with the young students, but I never felt unwelcome anywhere on this beautiful campus.” 

Tanner is graduating with concurrent bachelor’s degrees in anthropology and sociology from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. This milestone accomplishment for Tanner has immense value because she’s always emphasized the inspiration of education, literature, music and arts to her five children. 

“I have my cap and gown hanging in my bedroom where I can look at it every day, and it’s kind of unbelievable,” Tanner said. “I never thought I could perform at this level. After being subjected to a dangerous domestic violence environment my entire adult life, it was astounding to me that I could compete with such young, bright people. My hunger for my formal education in part was an effort to catch up for all those years I had to focus on survival.”

Tanner’s passion for human societies and cultures surfaced when she was 17, but she didn’t know it had a name until later as she raised her children and collected books on cultural anthropology. After nearly 35 years of marriage, Tanner escaped intimate partner violence and stepped “into the void” of her new life. She said it was terrifying, but a class schedule and backpack full of textbooks filled her with joy and hope.

“When I was younger, I was told I could be a mommy, a secretary, a nurse or a teacher – and that’s truly the way it was. Now, it’s limitless and women have more opportunities than ever,” Tanner said. “There’s no guarantee that I’m going to get a better paying job because I’m already at the threshold of senior citizenship; but I absolutely have the chance to pursue what I adore.”

Indulging in her quest for more knowledge and validation, Tanner personally invested herself into her life-long dream of a university degree. Fatigue, on-going family crises, financial instability and self-doubt were dominating challenges filled with uncertainty. Launching a new module in Pre-Colonial Mesoamerica, reading an ethnographic clinical study or exploring the social structures of ancient and modern societies, however, delivered a very predictable reward: Tanner couldn’t get enough.

“Being older has some inevitable drawbacks,” Tanner said. “As a non-traditional student, I can’t remember things the way I used to when I was younger. On weekends, I do nothing but school work. My time investment as a student is super precious.”

Although Tanner was an empty nester while at ASU, she used her skills from being a mother of five to tackle her schoolwork. She said she was the queen of organization and time management, which were essential to her success as an undergraduate.

“Sometimes a student comes into my course and really brings me joy. I’ve had Cindi Tanner in two such courses,” said Kathy Thomas, instructor in the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts. “She has incredible dedication to her work and is focused on academic excellence. She’s always striving for a better understanding. It’s been a pleasure to work with her. She’s an amazing woman.”

The biggest shock Tanner encountered as a non-traditional student was the online format for exams.

“I’m a different generation. I remember when we had rotary phones. I remember watching the moon landing. And, I remember when President John F. Kennedy was shot,” Tanner said. “I had no idea that I’d have to take complex exams in the digital format with a little clock ticking down.”

While the online exams weren’t her favorite aspect of the modern college experience, Tanner did enjoy classes where writing was very intensive – both in online discussions and academic papers.

“That was pure gold to me because I finally had an outlet to apply critical thinking and express my thoughts,” Tanner said. “There’s a point where trauma kind of dictates who you are, and it’s very difficult to escape that faulty definition. My experience has given me a powerful voice that you don’t hear often from people who have survived what I have. So, I really thrived on the opportunity to be heard, especially when instructors were willing to share constructive feedback!” 

Tanner hopes her story will help start a national dialogue about the interrelatedness of addictions, domestic violence, and emotional/mental disorders because it’s a social health crisis, she said. 

“After hearing my story, the number of women who’ve disclosed to me they’ve been assaulted or know someone who’s currently in a dangerous relationship is astonishing. And, the lifelong injury and damage inflicted by it is ubiquitous,” Tanner said. “This social dilemma thrives in silence, particularly within faith communities. The more we’re unwilling to confront addictions and abuse as a pathology with a high rate of generational transference, the more powerful it is. The only way to expose perpetration and demand accountability is transparency.” 

Tanner said she is profoundly grateful for the ASU community, which supported her every step of the way on her reinvention journey.

“My fear of being ostracized or marginalized as the granny didn’t materialize,” she said. “I appreciate the supportive instructors who were sensitive to my social demographics. I appreciate my young, beautiful classmates who were kind to me and didn’t speak to me in a belittling way. I was always treated with respect. Honestly, I had a little tear in my eye every time I walked on campus.”

After graduation, Tanner plans to continue with a hybrid master’s and doctorate degree program in anthropology (complex adaptive systems science). She also hopes to fulfill the American dream of buying a home and planting a tree.

“Don’t take this moment for granted,” she said. “I know my life story is not totally unique because we’ve all come from some kind of obstacle or barrier, but what is unique is what we’re willing to do with it. Almost anyone can probably pass a class, but what’s our destiny? What’s our motivation? What’s our hunger to show what we can do with our education afterwards when no one is grading our performance? That’s the real test.”

Amanda Stoneman

Senior Marketing Content Specialist , EdPlus


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Mobile dental clinic ready for the road

Engineering Projects in Community Service project puts students to work.
EPICS program helps students solve problems, gain professional skills.
May 3, 2017

ASU engineering students develop, deliver self-sustaining trailer operation that nonprofit organization will send to Nicaragua

After four years, $80,000 and innumerable obstacles, a team of ASU engineering students has completed a mobile dental clinic to dispatch to developing nations.

The team, Engineering Smiles, gained momentum from the Engineering Projects in Community Service program, which puts students together with nonprofits, community groups and governmental agencies to help solve problems and develop professional skills.

“Getting this finished is just about the best graduation present I could ask for,” said Sara Mantlik, the team leader.

For their project, Engineering Smiles partnered with California-based nonprofit IMAHelps, which organizes missions to Central and South America to provide medical and dental care to underprivileged populations.

Mantlik and fellow mechanical engineering graduate student Nick Kemme have been with the project since its inception, even as other team members have graduated or moved on to other work. They’re both slated to graduate with their master’s in mechanical engineering this spring.

“We were concerned we weren’t going to be able to finish our fundraising goal, but things really came together in the last month and a half,” Kemme said.

The completed clinic is housed in a trailer measuring 24 feet long and 8 feet wide and comes equipped with two dental operatories and a sterilization area.

Catalina Laboratory Products, a Tucson-based company, donated materials and services, including the clinic’s cabinetry, flooring and upgraded furnishings.

“They donated their time, materials and manpower. We went down to Tucson, picked out what we wanted for the trailer and laid it out how we wanted it,” Kemme said. “It was such a huge help.”

The air-conditioned clinic is powered by a diesel generator and can be set up in a range of conditions and operate self-sufficiently.

Mantlik, who went on a mission to El Salvador with IMAHelps in 2015, made the clinic’s self-sufficiency a priority.

“Sometimes they spend at least 12 hours trying to adapt what they have to fit the environment they’re working in,” Mantlik said of the IMAHelps missions. “That, combined with the unreliable power in the areas they work in, can mean almost 300 patients that don’t get care.”

Engineering Smiles soon will be handing the clinic off to IMAHelps, and the organization will take responsibility for getting it to Nicaragua. The clinic will reside at Universidad Católica de Nicaragua, where it will be used as a training aide for dentistry students when not in use by IMAHelps.

Following graduation, Mantlik is taking a break and traveling through Europe before going to work for GE Healthcare, entering its operation management leadership program.

Kemme will begin his career with General Atomics in San Diego as an optomechanical engineer, but not before taking a break to bike and camp in Zion National Park in Utah, as well as a family vacation to Hawaii.

“The Engineering Smiles team wants to give a special thanks to their top supporters, including Catalina Laboratory Products, Thomas Prescott, EPICS@ASU, Mr. & Mrs. Geyser, the Elliott Endowment Commitment, the A.T. Still University Physician Assistant Class of 2018, Mrs. Norton and Mr. Kern,” Mantlik said. “Due to the generosity and support of these and over 100 other individuals, the Engineering Smiles team successfully built a mobile dental clinic from inception to implementation.”

Top photo: The clinic is housed in a 24-foot long trailer, complete with its own diesel generator and air-conditioning. Unreliable power is a widespread issue faced on medical missions, as are difficult, remote locations IMAHelps travels to in order to serve underprivileged populations who need care. Photo by Pete Zrioka/ASU

Pete Zrioka

Assistant director of content strategy , Knowledge Enterprise