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
By S. PAUL BRYAN
Pima Community College student Ciara Martinez and her family have lived with the ups and downs of Rett Syndrome for almost three years.
Martinez’ daughter, Isis, was diagnosed with the rare postnatal neurological disorder at age 3 in 2013.
“I like to say she put the ‘Rett’ in pretty,” Martinez says.
Rett Syndrome is often misdiagnosed as autism, cerebral palsy or non-specific developmental delay. It’s caused by mutations on the X chromosome on a gene called MECP2 and is not a degenerative disorder.
The syndrome causes problems in the brain functions responsible for cognitive, sensory, emotional, motor and autonomic function, according to rettsyndrome.org.
Every day, 6-year-old Isis battles problems that include learning, speech, sensory sensations, mood, movement, breathing, cardiac function, chewing, swallowing and digestion.
Ciara Martinez, 24, is pursuing a degree in social services. She wants to work in Tucson, helping to build a community that is friendly to special-needs residents.
“I plan on becoming the best advocate for not only my daughter but all people who deal with a disability in life, to make sure that they are always included in everyday life,” she says.
Martinez is already ahead of the curve regarding her goals.
She serves as president of a nonprofit, prettyhalos.com, that raises money for girls battling Rett Syndrome.
In addition, she’s a representative for rettsyndrome.org, assisting families in the southwestern U.S. by helping newly diagnosed girls find doctors, therapists and support.
Despite Isis’ diagnosis, Martinez maintains a glass-half-full outlook.
“I feel as if our life has become better because of it,” she says. “I’m so grateful for all the amazing people that have come into our lives and all the wonderful memories we have made with them.”
Martinez’ husband, Jacob, works for PCC as a specialist in the automotive department. The couple also has a younger daughter, Imelia.
Jacob Martinez, 28, accepts the fate life handed him. He’s a present, attentive and thoughtful father who loves his girls.
“Isis’s diagnosis has not troubled us but simply opened our eyes more for us to see the bigger picture,” he says. “She is able to do so much.”
Three-year-old Imelia is great with Isis, according to their proud father.
“She helps out and even fights with her at times but you can always see the love they have for each other,” he says.
Imelia has been through genetic testing. She does not carry the Rett Syndrome gene and does not have the genetic mutation.
“Imelia has a wonderful relationship with Isis,” Ciara Martinez says. “Imelia loves to interact with all of Isis’s activities that she does throughout the day and she enjoys helping Isis cheat her way out of doing a hard task.”
Rett Syndrome strikes all racial and ethnic groups, and occurs worldwide in 1 of every 10,000 to 15,000 female births. Although rare, boys can also be diagnosed. Boys typically die before birth or soon after.
Baylor University scientists discovered in 1999 that Rett Syndrome is an X-linked disorder, which helps explain why it is usually found in girls.
There is no cure, and treatment requires diverse approaches. Medication may be needed for breathing irregularities and motor difficulties. Anticonvulsant drugs are often used to control seizures.
Some children require special equipment and help. Physicians use braces to deal with complications from scoliosis and splints to change hand movements. Nutritional programs help patients maintain appropriate weight. Special academic, social and support services are used in most cases.
“Isis actively participates in 35 hours a week of physical and cognitive therapy,” Ciara Martinez says.
Although Isis and her family must follow a strict regimen, there’s still plenty of time for fun.
“Isis loves her ‘Spongebob.’ She can watch them all day,” Jacob Martinez says. “She loves her swing, which she can also do all day if you let her.”
Ciara Martinez has set a goal for Isis to have full communication with everyone she meets.
“Isis’ future is always one step at a time,” she says. “I hope that one day Isis will be a voice for Rett Syndrome because she has already taught so many so much.”
Jacob Martinez admires the way Isis reaches her goals, even when everyone doubts the possibility.
“We are willing to fight with her and help other Rett girls find answers and accomplishments,” he says. “She is no burden, just full of blessings.”