Photos: Sarah Turner; Sarah with dad, Randy Turner
She’s the woman with the infectious smile on the Hardin-Simmons University campus. But graduating from university has not been an easy road for Sarah Turner, a 2008 Wylie High School graduate, slated to receive a Bachelor of Behavioral Science in English during commencement ceremonies at HSU this Saturday.
“Sarah’s story at Hardin-Simmons sounds like anyone’s,” says HSU alum Courtney Browning, a financial aid advisor and a dear friend of Sarah’s. “Living in the residence halls, carrying a heavy workload, and the challenge of finding one’s place in the world are all of the normal things college students balance. However, Sarah had the additional challenge of facing a disability, Cerebral Palsy, which at times would fill her with self-hatred.”
Courtney says she got to know Sarah as she took notice of how everyone in the residence hall where they lived seemed to be drawn to Sarah’s infectious smile, independent spirit, and most of all, a heart filled with encouragement for others.
Dr. Jana Wesson-Martin, associate professor of composition and director of the HSU Writing Center, says she got to know Sarah as she worked as a tutor in the writing center, "I had heard so much about Sarah before I ever met her. Colleagues in the English department mentioned her name as an extraordinary student,” says Wesson-Martin. Sarah brings incredible energy to the position and seeks the best in students and teammates. She enhances HSU, Abilene, and the world beyond."
When Sarah first came to HSU, she wanted to prove that she was every bit as courageous and capable as anyone else, says Courtney. While on many days, Sarah will sing and hum as she jets around campus on an electric scooter, she also pushes herself to walk to classes, despite a noticeable limp and the very real hazard of falling. “She will sometimes lose her balance and people will rush to help her, but she just smiles courteously saying, ‘I need to do this myself.’ She would brush herself off and no matter how many tries it took, she would get back on her feet and continue on.”
Courtney says Sarah’s journey to pursue an education has been incredibly hard. “Mid-way through college, her disabilities became more than she could bear emotionally, overwhelming her with self-hatred and anger. She didn’t want the life she was given, and wanted desperately to end it all.”
Sarah withdrew from HSU for a while, and enrolled in Mercy Ministries, a voluntary faith-based residential program that serves young women with various needs. At Mercy, Sarah discovered that she was much more than a girl plagued with disabilities. “She was a beautiful handi-capable woman, with words of poetry in her veins, and a purpose,” says Browning. Sarah then made the courageous decision to return to complete her degree.
“Sarah is one of the most inspiring, hilarious, and beautiful people I’ve ever met. You would never know she has ever had a dark day, let alone such a dark journey to the radiant light within her,” says Courtney. “Nothing stops her.”
Wesson-Martin says she remembers being moved by a poem Sarah wrote about waiting on the Lord, “Words our pastor presented at church one Sunday morning.”
Sarah recently travelled to Mozambique to serve with a missions group and later returned to Mercy to serve as an intern. Sarah has also played a crucial role at HSU as part of a committee formed to examine and guide campus accessibility needs. Her participation resulted in a number of added ramps and easy-opening motorized doors to access campus buildings.
Ask her a favorite thing about herself now, and she will often answer, “I have unevenly scuffed shoes.” Courtney says there is more to that statement than meets the eye, “Her shoes tell her story, and she has learned that she never wants to forget the many steps in life she has had to take to get this far.”
On Saturday, Sarah is poised to graduate with a BBS from HSU. She plans to return in January to begin her master’s degree in English. Sarah’s mom, Bobbie Turner, an HSU business office assistant, says she is proud of her daughter’s decision to continue her education with intentions of eventually earning a doctorate so she can be an instructor at the collegiate level.
Sarah has already gotten a taste of what it is like to teach. Several years ago she earned the required certification to teach English as a Second Language courses and assisted the International Refugee Committee. “She really has a passion for helping others and wants to be a part of helping refugees living in Abilene to become U.S. citizens,” says Bobbie. Even though the transportation aspect of traveling to teach the classes has taken a toll on Sarah, she continues to teach ESL classes at Beltway Park Baptist Church on Sundays.
Browning says, “I couldn’t be more proud of my friend. There are people I can truly say it is an honor to know, but to know Sarah is more than that, it’s one of the most incredible blessings I’ve ever received. Sarah is outstanding in every way.”