For Sandra Armstrong Thomson ’66, Daemen College was an important step in a life trek that has taken her from elementary classrooms in Kenmore, New York, to federal courtrooms in Phoenix, Arizona, to refugee centers in Kathmandu, Nepal.
Born and raised in Kenmore, the former Sandra Armstrong earned a Bachelor’s degree in elementary education from the College, known then as Rosary Hill College. After graduating from Mount St. Mary’s Academy in Kenmore, Sandra selected Rosary Hill because she wanted to remain in Western New York and many of her high school friends were attending the College. She started out studying in the sciences but changed her major early on and fell in love with elementary education.
“I had a wonderful experience at Rosary Hill and the faculty and classes were what influenced me to become a teacher,” Sandra explains. “Once I discovered the education program there I knew teaching was what I wanted to do.”
Upon graduation, Sandra began teaching at Lindbergh Elementary School in Kenmore where she immediately put to use the skills she gained in college. She taught at the elementary school for four years and in that time married her husband, Brendan, who graduated from medical school at State University of New York at Buffalo. When Brendan accepted a one-year medical internship the couple moved to Phoenix, Arizona. “And the rest is history,” Sandra says. “We became enamored with the Southwest and have been here ever since.”
Sandra taught at a parochial school in Phoenix while she earned her Master’s degree in education from Arizona State University (ASU). Her husband went into private practice in pulmonary disease and critical care medicine, and when their three sons began arriving — Brendan, Jr., Ryan and Michael — Sandra took a break from teaching. She stayed connected to education by volunteering in their children’s schools.
As her boys grew older, Sandra considered a return to the classroom. However, a neighbor who had attended law school as an older student suggested Sandra might want to look into a different kind of classroom — to earn a law degree. She applied and was accepted into the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at ASU. “It was a very grueling three years, but I loved the classes and felt it was a privilege to go back to a college and build on my own education,” Sandra says.
Upon receiving her law degree, Sandra took the Arizona State Bar Exam and passed. She landed her first job as a law clerk at the Arizona State Court of Appeals and worked for a particular judge for about four 23 years. Her work was evidently noticed, because when another judge was named chief judge, she created a new position for Sandra as a senior law clerk.
Making a Federal case
Sandra’s work at the Court of Appeals led to a position with the United States District Court for the District of Arizona at the trial court level. She worked as a permanent law clerk for seven years before deciding to retire. But her retirement would not last long.
“Another judge in the District Court, Judge Mary Murguia, asked me to fill in for a few weeks as her long-time employee was leaving,” Sandra recalls. “Three weeks turned into three months which ended up turning into three years.”
During that time, Judge Murguia was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, the largest Circuit in the United States, and Sandra joined the judge as her law clerk. Based in Phoenix, the work regularly took her to San Francisco and Pasadena, California, for oral arguments.
The road to Kathmandu
Retirement finally became a reality for Sandra about two years ago and travel has been a big part of her plans. But the travel seed was actually planted back in the 1980s when she and her husband, Brendan, attended a medical conference in India. While there, the couple decided to spend some extra time and traveled to Nepal where they met Rev. Joseph Thaler, a member of the Maryknoll Fathers, a U.S.- based Catholic missionary movement. Long-time supporters of the Maryknoll Fathers, the Thomsons became quick friends with Father Thaler and have remained close ever since.
While there, the couple met a young Nepali doctor who Sandra’s husband helped secure a medical residency at a Phoenix hospital. The young Nepali came and initially lived with the Thomsons during his residency, and from that experience Brendan helped establish the American-Nepal Medical Foundation, a program designed to raise the standards of medical education in Nepal. Working on the program, the couple traveled often over the years to Nepal and developed a long-standing relationship with the country and its people.
Return to teaching
This past year, Brendan was awarded a Fulbright Senior Specialist Award, a program that seeks to promote links between U.S. scholars and their peers at institutions overseas. The couple used the opportunity to live in Kathmandu for two months and they connected once again with their friend Father Thaler. The Maryknoll priest was working with a Non-Government Organization (NGO) in Kathmandu providing education and training for Nepalese and Tibetan refugees. He asked Sandra to fill in for an English teacher who was taking a leave from the NGO to study for college exams.
“It was absolutely one of the most wonderful experiences in my life,” Sandra notes. “The class was made up of mostly older women, a few men and even a Tibetan monk. Most had never had any formal education so I was able to employ the teaching methods that I learned early in my career and as an education student at Daemen.”
Taking a hike
Kathmandu is not the only corner of the world that Sandra has had the opportunity to see. “I was invited into a group of 21 very accomplished women from all over the U.S. who share a love of hiking and travel,” Sandra explains. “We call ourselves the CHAMPS — Courageous Hikers Ascending Many Places Successfully. The group has enriched my life with wonderful friendships and exciting adventures.”
With the group she has trekked in mountains and other areas all over the world. Among the countries she has seen are Iceland; Turkey; Bhutan, in South Asia; various places in Europe; and Northern Spain.
Although Sandra no longer has family living in Western New York, she returns to visit often as she still has very strong ties to friends she met during college. She has also hosted alumni of Daemen College at her Arizona home, casual gatherings of Daemen graduates who live in the Phoenix area.
“I was happy to do it because it provided an opportunity to meet fellow Rosary Hill and Daemen grads in Phoenix,” she says. “It was an opportunity to talk and get to know what was going on at the College.”
“You take pride in your school and it’s exciting when you see how it continues to improve,” Sandra concludes. “I feel very blessed with the incredible opportunities that presented themselves in my life and Rosary Hill/Daemen was certainly a foundation for the path I followed. I had no idea that my life would unfold in such extraordinary ways.”
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