By ELISE STAHL
Of all the words to describe Liz Pennington, the new member of Phi Theta Kappa’s 2017 All-USA Community College Academic Team, “college dropout” would likely not come to mind.
But Pennington, a graduating Pima student who will transfer to the University of Arizona to complete her studies, once dropped out of that very school.
“I came to the U of A right out of high school … and I didn’t do well in this big environment,” Pennington said. “And my family, there were six of us and we were struggling financially already, and then my parents got a divorce. It was just such a difficult time.”
After a year and a half of struggling in her classes, Pennington left the university. She proceeded to work full time and start a family of her own.
However, more than 15 years later, she decided to give college a second try.
“What really drew me to coming back to Pima is … the affordability,” Pennington said. “I thought, ‘Hey, if I’m not going to do that great, I might as well be able to afford it.’”
Contrary to her expectations, Pennington excelled. In Fall 2015, she was invited to join the Phi Theta Kappa honor society. She made First Team on the 2017 All-Arizona Academic Team.
In March, Pennington was informed she had been chosen for the All-USA Community College Academic Team.
“I couldn’t be happier,” Pennington said of her selection. “I still can’t believe it, because I know that we have a lot of great students that do so much, in the community and grade-wise, but for some reason I was graced with this experience.”
The All-USA Community College Academic Team is comprised of students from community colleges across the U.S. Campus administrators nominate prospective team members from their respective colleges.
Students are then considered by an independent panel of judges who look at academic achievement, leadership and engagement in both college and community service. Only 20 out of this year’s 1,900-plus nominees were chosen for the team.
As a selectee, Pennington will receive $5,000 in scholarship awards and be presented at the American Association of Community Colleges Annual Convention.
“It is an incredible experience,” she said.
Kenneth Vorndran, an Honors Club coordinator at PCC and an adviser for Phi Theta Kappa, assisted Pennington with her team application and applauded Pennington’s accomplishment.
“I’m very delighted that Liz is on the All-USA Team,” Vorndran said. “It speaks very highly of the work we do here. If a college gets one gold scholar … they’re usually thrilled. We have four gold scholars, a bronze scholar and a student on the All-USA Team. That’s unbelievable.”
Pennington credits Vorndran with being a source of reinforcement during her journey to team selection.
“When I talked to him, he was very encouraging all the time,” she said.
Pennington says she thinks more highly of PCC now than when she started, “because of the people in leadership that have helped my dreams come true. There’s people that want to bring out the best in you.”
But more than anything, Pennington cites her husband, Paul Pennington, and their 10-year-old-daughter, Madeline, as her biggest inspirations.
“They have been my greatest cheerleaders and supporters of returning to college and giving my best,” she said.
After Pima, Pennington plans to complete UA’s Literacy, Learning and Leadership track with a minor in history. She’ll follow with a one-year master’s program, after which she will receive secondary-education certification. She wants to teach history at the high school level.
“I love history, I love my education classes, and I thought, ‘What better way to put those together than to teach what I love?’” she said. “And I think that’s one of the most important things when you are a teacher, is that you love what you do, because nobody wants a teacher that doesn’t like what they do.”
When she isn’t pursuing her academic loves, Pennington volunteers by teaching students at her church.
She also volunteers with Reading Heroes, a program dedicated to helping children develop reading skills.
“Anyone can do it,” she said of the program. “It’s a great experience, and it’s so rewarding.”
Even though her end goal is to educate at the high school level, Pennington wants to remain involved with the higher education system.
“I want to continue to be an advocate for education, affordable education especially, and the community college level, because it’s made such a difference in my life,” she said. “I feel like I’m in great debt to people that have invested a lot in me.
“I want to impart that to others also—what has been given to me.”
Students earn All-Arizona Academic honors
Twelve Pima Community College students were named to Phi Theta Kappa’s 2017 All-Arizona Academic teams. The honor is based on scholastic performance, demonstration of leadership skills and community service.
The PCC honorees will receive scholarships, as well as two-year Arizona Board of Regents tuition waivers to any state public university.
PCC’s First Team members, their intended areas of study and intended transfer schools are:
- Corinne Anderson, registered nursing, Northern Arizona University
- Garrett Encinas, psychology, Arizona State University
- Derrick Espadas, business, undecided
- Heloise Mazzotti, communication and marketing, University of Arizona
- Corinne Meinhausen, neuroscience and cognitive science, UA
- Jaclyn Mona, interdisciplinary studies and communication, UA
- Celeste Nunez, medicine, ASU
- Liz Pennington, history and secondary education, UA
Second Team members:
- Mariana Eubanks, marketing, finance and entrepreneurship, UA
- Rachel Greenland, aerospace engineering, UA
- Sergey Harutyunyants, law/political science, UA
Third Team member:
Yesica Furrow, studio art, UA