The Seattle University freshman is adjusting to college life, holding down a job and performing with the Seattle U dance team. She was born without arms, but hasn't let it stop her from doing what she loves.

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Teresa Buchholz doesn’t spend time worrying about what she can’t do.

The Seattle University freshman is too busy adjusting to college life, holding down a job and performing with the Seattle U dance team. Her dancing is so polished and her smile so bright that it’s easy to overlook her physical difference.

Buchholz was born without arms, but it hasn’t stopped her from doing what she loves.

Those around her are awed by the self-described extrovert, who uses her feet to do what most people would do with their hands, including writing and texting.

People call her funny and sarcastic. Just don’t call her inspiring.

“I am not inspiring,” she said. “I really don’t like that word. People think you are inspiring because you do things with your feet, and that is really not what inspiring is. I am just living my life, and that shouldn’t be inspiring to people.”

Fair enough. But there is no doubt she leaves quite an impression on those around her, including Miki Saito, the dance coach at Seattle U.

“Honestly, I have been so impressed with the way she has been able to adjust to choreography, and she has a really go-getter attitude,” Saito said. “She likes to try things, and on my end, I haven’t been one to limit her. Obviously, there are going to be some things that she just can’t do physically, but I haven’t run into anything that she hasn’t been willing to at least try.”

That’s because Buchholz thrives on challenging herself.

“I think if you have a physical impairment and you are close minded, then you are just limiting your successes,” she said. “Because if you are not willing to go out of your comfort zone and if you are not willing to do things that make you uncomfortable, how are you going to learn and how are you going to discover passions.”

• • •

Gaining confidence

Teresa grew up in Vancouver, Wash., having someone she could relate to. Her sister Anna, six years older, also was born without arms. Both girls were adopted from Vietnam.

“I am a retired physical therapist who worked in pediatrics, so to me, I think my kids did not seem that different,” said mother Sue Buchholz, who has six children altogether. “So I just treated them like kids. Kids learn to walk and they learn

things because we’re driven to develop, and they are the same.

“They figured out ways to do things. Sometimes we would have to get creative, but a lot of times they could figure out things on their own. Certainly, I don’t believe they should let it hold them back.”

Anna, who graduated from the University of Washington, provided a good example for Teresa. Both are very independent, but the similarities end there.

“My mom raised us to not rely on others,” Teresa said. “While it was nice to grow up with my sister, and have that first step toward independence, I really figured things out on my own with help from the people around me. It wasn’t like I was in her shadow all the time. We are very different. She is very introverted and I am very extroverted. So there is a vast difference in what we needed to learn to do.”

Teresa always had to be doing something. She was a paralympic swimmer for nine years and also played soccer. In middle school, she got interested in dance, and was on the high school dance team for four years. She was team captain as a senior.

She said she “was everywhere” at Mountain View High School, taking advanced-placement courses, serving on the choir council and as the senior class representative. And she volunteered with the International Child Amputee Network, an organization pairing mentors and children who are missing limbs.

Teresa has always had a great sense of humor. Sometimes she would tell teachers that her arms had been bitten off by sharks.

“I only said it to the teachers who could handle it,” Teresa said. “It’s kind of an intense joke.”

As confident and self-assured as Teresa seems now, it wasn’t always easy for her.

“There was definitely a hard time in middle school where I was very, very sad about how I looked, and how I felt about myself,” she said. “Obviously, there is the bullying aspect, and there are times when you feel like you don’t fit in, and you don’t feel like a part of anything. But I have my mom to thank, because she always gave me the strength to keep doing things even when it got very hard.

“It’s not easy to be different – and obviously physically different — because everyone notices and the attention is always on you whether you want it or not. But I was raised to never back down from a challenge, and my mom always encouraged me to step up.”

Dancing provided a challenge and was also a confidence booster. After two years on the junior-varsity squad, Teresa made the varsity team. Jordan Stillinger, her high school coach for 2 1/2 years, saw Teresa make great strides on and off the dance floor.

“The biggest thing I saw grow in Teresa was her confidence, as a person and as a dancer,” Stillinger said. “She maybe thought that she was going to be a little bit behind or not as good as the varsity dancers – the upperclassmen she looked up to. But she had really beautiful technique, and I put her on the varsity team and I think it shocked her. It gave her a boost of confidence and she kind of ran with it.

She didn’t shy away from new moves, including rolling and other things that are hard to do without arms.

“She would try it, go for it and conquer it,” Stillinger said. ”There wasn’t a lot of fear or insecurity anymore. I think being a captain forced that issue because now she was being seen as a leader, and she wanted to be fearless and confident for her team. Her confidence level – personally and dancewise — just exponentially grew.”

• • •

College life

Seattle University freshman Teresa Buchholz takes notes during one of her required core classes, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019 in Seattle. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)
Seattle University freshman Teresa Buchholz takes notes during one of her required core classes, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019 in Seattle. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

Teresa said her first year at Seattle U has been quite an adjustment.

“It’s been a hard transition because I have to be fully independent, meaning I don’t have my mom up here to help me and do things for me, so I think that’s been a harsh slap of reality, but it is something that everyone needs,” she said. “I wouldn’t say it was a bad first quarter. It was very intense, and overwhelming at times. But it was rewarding.”

Her ability to adjust made a good impression on Robert Aguirre, her fall-term literature professor.

She doesn’t sit in a typical college desk where the chair and work surface are attached, and she asked Aguirre if she could explain that to her fellow students on the first day.

“So I gave her the class and she just asked her classmates to be aware of her working on the ground and just asked them to not step on her work,” Aguirre said. “She is such a hard worker. You wouldn’t know from her work, from in and out of the classroom, that she was a person with a disability.”

Seattle University freshman Teresa Buchholz takes notes during one of her required core classes, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019 in Seattle. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)
Seattle University freshman Teresa Buchholz takes notes during one of her required core classes, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019 in Seattle. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

With a full load of classes and working for Jumpstart, an early education program, the question was whether she wanted to try out for the dance team.

“It was kind of scary to try out for a college dance team. It is very intimidating because the girls are so good and there is always the fear of, ‘Am I going to fit in?’ ” she said. “But I realized there are a lot of little kids with limb differences who are looking up to me and if I am going to be stopped by what other people think about me, then I am not doing my job well enough: my job being encouraging younger generations like myself.”

Stillinger loved getting the news that Teresa was going to try out for the Seattle U team, which dances and cheers at Redhawks games.

“I was so proud of her, because she had confided in me that some of those insecurities were coming back,” Stillinger said. “So when she told me she was going to try out, I was so proud of her for going back to that fearless mindset again and putting herself out there. And they obviously saw what I saw in her, to have her make the team.”

They certainly did, said Seattle U assistant dance coach Jessica Fabroa.

“She is very skilled technically, and she is always positive,” Fabroa said. “She can do everything that we need her to do. She has been really fun to work with, and super easy to work with. She’s got a great sense of humor. She’s always making jokes and is in a happy, positive mood. She makes jokes about her situation and she makes everyone comfortable about it.”

• • •

Encouraging others

Buchholz has yet to decide what she will major in, but would like to minor in Chinese. She enjoys her work at Jumpstart as it gives her an opportunity to influence younger people.

“I work in a classroom with kids, and it’s showing another part of diversity to younger generations,” she said. “They are obviously a little shocked that I don’t have arms and that I use my feet because they are preschool kids. But I think it’s really cool to share my story and to show kids younger than me a different way of doing things.”

Growing up, Teresa and Anna were mentored by Jessica Cox, the world’s first licensed armless pilot. It was an important relationship and they were connected by the International Child Amputee Network, the organization that Teresa now volunteers with.

“They could see that nothing held her back,” Sue Buchholz said of Cox, who is also the first armless black-belt in the American Taekwondo Association. “Jessica has been a great model for (Anna and Teresa), to see someone who despite being born without arms, is successful and has done things that people thought she could never do. It’s been good for them to meet and see other kids with limb differences and adults with limb differences doing regular jobs and pursuing their passions and figuring out ways to make it work.”

Teresa is now doing for children what Cox did for her.

“I think I am encouraging people to go outside of their comfort zones,” Buchholz said.

She does that when she dances, and how she lives her life.

“Her capacity to love and care for other people is pretty incredible, dealing with what she has had to deal with in her life,” Stillinger said. “I think you could become really self-absorbed, and get a victim mentality, and she is pretty much the opposite of that.”