Student overcomes difficult match with thyroid cancer

Jennie Worek and Alex Frole
November 01, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Where do I go? Who do I talk to? How do I get involved? Hundreds of questions flood the minds of first-year students entering college, all asking the same thing: Where do I begin? Before you know it, you start to imagine classmates becoming co-workers and roommates growing into life-long friends.

Jordan Smithberger, a fifth-year student at Penn State, looks back on her experience as a freshman, wanting to try as many new things as possible, pushing herself to go outside of her comfort zone each year. As she entered her senior year at University Park, Jordan felt like she was missing some familiarity in her life. While searching for a job, it all began to click. This was a chance to bring back an old passion into her life: tennis.

In hopes of finding a way to make money by doing something she loves, Jordan started working for the Tennis Center in Campus Recreation, a unit of Penn State Student Affairs.

“I missed [tennis] and thought the opportunity to be around it again was really exciting,” said Smithberger, who now works as a customer service representative and an Instructor for the Junior Development program.

Through this opportunity, Smithberger’s love for tennis grew. Her favorite part of the job is working with younger athletes in the Junior Development program, watching each child improve gradually each week.

“Seeing their excitement when they do well is really rewarding. Their energy, even in the heat of summer, is amazing and contagious."

-- Jordan Smithberger, a fifth-year student at Penn State

During the exciting rush of working summer camps at the Tennis Center, Smithberger received life-altering news: she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer and in less than one week after her diagnosis, she was scheduled for surgery.

“Once I was diagnosed, Campus Recreation staff, relieved me from my shifts and had them covered immediately."

-- Jordan Smithberger, a fifth-year student at Penn State

Following surgery, Smithberger was extremely sore and tired. She disclosed the experience someone undergoes after a thyroidectomy surgery, detailing how patients run the risk of having low calcium in their blood and will need to take medication for the rest of their life.

Now, a few months into recovery, her calcium levels are still low, which affects her muscle activity, but Smithberger has fought to get back on her feet and pick back up her racquet with the support of friends, family and her fellow staff at Campus Recreation.

“The staff has all been so impressed by her work ethic,” said Bill Potoczny, assistant director of tennis in Campus Recreation. “She is so passionate and excited each and every day to do her job well that most of our staff didn't even know she was sick. This type of courage is very rare, and Campus Recreation is really thankful to have her working for us.” 

Smithberger shared how accommodating the Tennis Center had been when it came to her schedule and health needs during this journey.

“My co-workers have been very supportive throughout this experience. They all sent me a card after surgery with a little, personalized note inside. It really boosted my morale during the recovery process,” Smithberger said.

With graduation in sight, Smithberger is applying to graduate schools with the ultimate goal of becoming a physical therapist. Looking back on her time at Penn State, the biggest piece of advice she would give freshmen would be to get involved and share your struggles with a community.

"Even though college is a completely different experience than high school, it doesn’t have to be intimidating," she said. "Remember that there are thousands of other students who also are trying to find their purpose, the same way you are."

Last Updated November 14, 2018