‘I never gave up’ – Blazer tenaciously graduates with honors after setbacks

Ashley Penrod put her education on hold and served as the main caretaker for her father after he received two different cancer diagnoses. After seven years, she will graduate with honors at the UAB graduate commencement ceremony.

Penrod.1Ashley Penrod was finishing her last graduate class for her master’s degree in early childhood education at the University of Alabama at Birmingham in October 2019. She began at UAB in the Early Childhood Special Education Program in fall 2014 as a first-generation Asian American student. With only her student teaching responsibilities left to complete, her eyes were set on the finish line: She was ready to become the first student in her family to not only graduate from college, but graduate with a master’s degree. A feat she had dreamed of.  

However, two months before her student teaching began, adversity hit. Penrod’s father was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, bringing her world to a screeching halt.  

“I was devastated,” she said. “It was hard to see him in so much pain, and recovery took months. He was on a feeding tube, and he could hardly move.”

While her father underwent surgery to remove the cancer, a long, hard road to recovery followed. Penrod continued her plan of student teaching; but during her first week, all she could focus on was her recovering father.

“The only thing I could think about was ‘is my dad going to be OK?’ I felt guilty leaving my mom to care for my dad by herself, so I knew right then that it wasn’t the time to complete my student teaching,” Penrod shared.

Making the difficult choice to withdraw from her classes to support her family in a caregiving capacity, Penrod knew that her choice was for the best when her father received a second cancer diagnosis of brain cancer — all during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I felt the pain come back again, and it put me in a depressive state,” Penrod said. “The thoughts in my head were ‘I don’t know how long my dad will live.’ While I knew that finishing my degree was important, school was far from my mind.”

Her father underwent a second surgery, and after more than a year of recovery, Penrod felt it was the time to reenroll back into her student teaching classes and seek completion of her master’s degree.

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“I was in a good place, a place where I felt I could focus and study hard.” 

And she did. Upon completion of her student teaching requirements, Penrod received the highest edTPA — a national performance-based certification for teachers — score in her graduating class. She will graduate with a 4.0 GPA and walk in the UAB graduate commencement ceremony Dec. 10.

“Regardless of the personal challenges Ashley faced during graduate school, she was always pleasant and demonstrated that she possessed the commitment that ensures success,” said Jennifer Kilgo, Ed.D., University Professor in the UAB School of Education. “I have no doubt that she will be an excellent early childhood special educator after working tirelessly to achieve her goal.” 

“Through all the hard times, I made it a priority to never give up. I never did, and now after seven years, I made it,” Penrod said. “I know that, when I walk across the stage at graduation and see my dad in the stands, it will all have been worth it.”