Alumna overcomes odds to 'dream big'

Sarah Barnhard '05

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Now working at the University of California, Davis as medical director of transfusion services, Dr. Sarah Barnhard established an endowed scholarship for first-generation students to honor her mother, Cheryl Barnhard, who homeschooled Sarah and her siblings.

Woman stands in hospital hallway

Where did you grow up?

My family lived in rural areas outside Fruitport, Ravenna, and Muskegon. I have three siblings, and we lived below the poverty level; my mother homeschooled us through high school. After graduation, I went to a private, religious college in Wisconsin to study classical piano performance, but then decided not to pursue a music career. I moved back to Michigan as a college sophomore to try to figure out my career path.

Why did you decide to attend Grand Valley?

I decided to pursue medicine, but the burden of funding medical school was daunting. After looking at options to get a bachelor’s degree without significant debt, I enrolled at Muskegon Community College, completed an associate’s degree and transferred to Grand Valley. I received many different scholarships, need-based grants, and work-study programs over the years. I was incredibly lucky to finish my undergraduate education with zero debt.

You call your decision to study medicine “random.” Why?

Many applicants for medical school come from generations of physicians, others have a personal journey through chronic illness. Compared to these stories, mine seems so random. I picked a career out of thin air and thought, “I’d like to do this.”

I knew I wanted to travel, explore and experience a life journey I could not imagine. I also knew I wanted my life to benefit others.

Talk about your career path.

Getting to my current role involved a combination of pursuing something I loved, working hard and being in the right place at the right time. After medical school, I completed my residency training in anatomical and clinical pathology, followed by a blood banking/transfusion medicine fellowship at the University of California, Davis. I fell in love with transfusion medicine on the first day of my first residency rotation.

When I finished my fellowship, several senior faculty members were retiring, and I applied — successfully — to be an academic professor in transfusion medicine. Then I was promoted to associate medical director in 2016 and medical director earlier this year.

What does a typical day look like for you?

One thing I love about my job is that no two days are the same. As an academic physician, I work in all three areas of academic medicine: education, research and clinical care. I spend about a third of my time at the bedside directly caring for patients who are receiving therapeutic apheresis. I am also a clinical expert overseeing patients who are receiving transfusions. I help my colleagues treat transfusion reactions or figure out what testing needs to be done. With the rest of my time, I do research and oversee the transfusion services clinical laboratory.

At Grand Valley, you had minors in chemistry and creative writing. How have they helped you in your role?

I am so glad I spent the extra time in chemistry and creative writing. My writing minor prepared me for writing endless manuscripts and reports while my chemistry minor prepared me to run a clinical laboratory. Being able to go from STEM classes to poetry class was also a huge stress relief.

Can you talk about how you learned to “dream big?”

I used to think the odds against me were insurmountable, and pursuing a career I loved while changing socioeconomic classes was impossible. It takes a ton of hard work and resources, but it was so much more achievable than I realized. I’ve learned I am never stuck in one pathway in life, and I should always “dream big.”

“Supporting first-generation students is my way of recognizing the unique courage it takes to break out into the unknown and try something new.”

Sarah Barnhard, '05

You initiated a scholarship that honors your mother. Why did you create it?

Creating an endowed scholarship has been on my mind for quite a while. I recently paid off all my medical school loans, which was a huge milestone. When I wrote that final check, I couldn’t help but think about how far I had come and how much financial help and professional mentorship I received along the way to make this life possible. I was also grateful for my mom who dedicated her entire life to giving me and my siblings a solid academic foundation.

I believe that we are given gifts so we can use them to contribute in a meaningful way to someone else, because ultimately we are all connected. For me, the Cheryl Barnhard First-Generation Chemistry Endowed Scholarship was a way of completing the beautiful 16-year journey I have been on since attending Grand Valley. It was important to me that it was an endowed scholarship because I wanted to contribute to the sustainability of GVSU’s education.

The scholarship honors Grand Valley; it honors professors Bob Smart and Laurie Witucki; and, most of all, it honors the countless hours of parental support and teaching from my mom.

You wanted the scholarship to benefit first-generation students. Why?

Pulling your dreams out of thin air and focusing all your effort to make them a reality in the face of financial strain and cultural barriers takes a huge amount of faith and courage. Students who are first in their family to attend college not only need financial support, they also need mentorship to adapt to a new socioeconomic culture because they are sometimes stigmatized for dreaming of a better life.

I was the first in my family to pursue post-baccalaureate education. Supporting first-generation students is my way of recognizing the unique courage it takes to break out into the unknown and try something new.

Circle g grand valley logo

How would you encourage other alumni to give back?

We live in a beautiful country of opportunity where people dream of building a better life through education. Grand Valley is uniquely positioned as an affordable public university with transfer agreements with many community colleges. It functions as a pipeline for public education, especially for underserved rural communities. When you give to Grand Valley, you are investing in an entire community and contributing to its economic success.

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