University McNair Scholars adviser lived life of service

Dena Sanford was affiliated with the scholar program for nearly 20 years.

Marni Ginther

If anyone’s life story ever embodied the phrase “pay it forward,” it might be Dena Sanford’s.

She was an adviser in the University’s Ronald E. McNair Scholars office, which helps low-income and first-generation students get into graduate school. She died of complications from cancer May 14 at Fairview-University Medical Center. She was 56 years old.

A former McNair Scholar herself, she held bachelor’s degrees from the University in sociology and psychology and completed the coursework for a doctorate in sociology.

She was affiliated with the office either as a student or adviser for about 17 years, said Sharyn Schelske, director of the McNair Scholars program.

where to go

Memorial service for Dena Sanford
what: Attendees are asked to wear an item of pink in celebration of her life
when: 6:30 p.m. Saturday
where: St. Stephen’s Church 2211 Clinton Ave. S.

“She was a great colleague but also a great mentor,” said Tlahtoki Xochimeh, a co-worker and former advisee. “She understood that the backgrounds of her students were more than what you just see on paper.”

Xochimeh is now an American studies graduate student at the University and said Sanford’s spirit of giving back extended beyond the McNair office.

“All of her jobs involved being of service to others and helping people going through tough times,” he said.

Sanford was a recovering addict and member of Narcotics Anonymous. She worked at Hazelden Center for Youth and Families helping others with chemical dependency, said her son Brandon Sanford. He also works at a Minneapolis center that provides support, education and intervention to drug users.

“I really think my mom’s willingness to be there for people, her compassion and being nonjudgmental has always inspired me,” he said. “She taught me that regardless of someone’s behavior, that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve compassion.”

Xochimeh and Brandon remember how Sanford expressed her love through cooking. She sang songs and cracked jokes around the office and would often wear pink from head to toe.

“She was a character, and always a person of character,” Brandon Sanford said.

Stark said that in her work with students, Sanford went the extra mile to make a personal connection.

“She made students feel important. She had a way of making people feel very special,” Stark said.

A memorial service was held on campus May 22, and another will be held Saturday, June 2 at 6:30 p.m. at St. Stephen’s Church.

“Last Tuesday, you could see how many people were there,” Xochimeh said. “If I positively impact a hundredth of the people she impacted, I’ll consider my life a life well lived.”