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Thetford mother cites tough times, perseverance in 7-year journey to CCV graduation

  • Student speaker Kayce Penn, of Thetford, poses with Vermont Gov. Phil Scott before the commencement ceremony on Saturday at Norwich University’s Shapiro Field House in Northfield, Vt. Penn said her seven-year journey to a degree, which she got while working and raising two children, was challenging, but doable with the right amount of perseverance. (Courtesy Jade Premont)



Valley News Staff Writer
Saturday, June 01, 2019

THETFORD — After an unsuccessful semester at a traditional four-year college and the birth of her first daughter, Kayce Penn felt she was ready to take another crack at earning a degree.

The then-20-year-old Thetford resident scheduled an appointment with an adviser at Community College of Vermont’s Upper Valley campus. But when it came time for the meeting, one big hurdle stood in the way: the birth of Penn’s second daughter.

While in labor, Penn asked to meet with her adviser over the phone, setting up a seven-year journey that ended Saturday, when she obtained an associate degree in design and media studies from the community college.

“I love that memory because I’ve always been motivated by people telling me what I can’t do,” she said in a phone interview on Friday. “If it’s something I really want to do and you’re telling me that I can’t, well, I’m going to show you how much I really can do that.”

Penn, a single mother who worked full time while attending classes, was student speaker at CCV’s 52nd commencement ceremony Saturday afternoon. Held at Norwich University in Northfield, Vt., the event saw about 500 students receive diplomas.

Penn said she learned about the value of a college degree early on from her father, a tradesman from Thetford. During her childhood, Penn said, the two would talk about what she wanted to do in life and how she was going to accomplish those goals.

“It was in those conversations very early on that I began to understand how you need higher education to get the career that provides you with the tools to live the kind of life you want to,” she said.

But journey to a degree ultimately turned out to be “emotionally exhausting,” Penn said.

Working full time, attending class and caring for two children meant every moment of her life was scheduled, planned and claimed in advance. Penn said it made for a chapter in her life that was lonely, and at times filled with anxiety.

“There is no time for you to rest,” she said. “There is no time for you watch TV or go out with friends. You have to be committed to those three things and those three things only.”

Penn said pursuing her dreams took “a lot of mental bandwidth,” although CCV made it possible to juggle those commitments.

She said the community college system was flexible, allowing her to take as many courses as she could handle in an unregimented way.

That’s not what Penn experienced at Castleton University, where she had enrolled after high school. She attended the liberal arts college for a semester when she was pregnant with her first daughter.

“You cannot attend a traditional four-year college and be pregnant or even have a child,” Penn said, adding that the course load and schedule at Castleton made it nearly impossible to find work.

“It’s important to share that there were struggles. There were times when I had to work two jobs and go to school at night. There were times when I had to run to the food shelf on my 30-minute lunch break at a minimum-wage job just to make sure I could provide us with enough provisions to last us while I pay the rent,” she said.

“This wasn’t a beautiful, easy, sitting-in-a-coffee-shop-with-your-MacBook-doing-your-homework, relaxed chapter. It was a lot of hard work, but it wasn’t impossible.”

Penn hopes her work and commitment to obtaining a degree will serve as a model for others and for her two daughters, who are now 7 and 8 years old.

“I’ve been in school their whole lives. They’ve watched me work, they’ve watched me go to school,” she said. “They have an understanding that they go to first and second grade and mommy goes to school too.”

With a degree in hand, Penn plans to continue building Kay Mae Designs, her wedding and event planning business, which was formed about two years ago.

The company hires local artisans and specializes in promoting “sustainability practices” such as recycling, composting and donating the leftovers from events. Penn also donates a portion of the proceeds from the business to charities of a client’s choice.

“Throughout all of this time, I’ve realized that if I want to be there for my children and provide us with the life we want to live, I really need to have a place of employment that works around my children first and doesn’t expect to be first,” she said. “The only way you’re going to get that is by owning a business.”

Penn also wants to pursue a bachelor’s degree in business and find ways to hire other working parents facing similar situations.

Graduation, and the past seven years of study, have taught her that perseverance pays off so long as it's accompanied by patience.

“There’s always a way to accomplish what you wish to achieve if that’s really what you desire to do,” Penn said. “It might take seven years, it might take 20, but I can get there.”

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.

CCV Upper Valley Graduates

Graduates of CCV’s Upper Valley program include Benjamin R. Anderson, Windsor; Dakota M. Arbuckle, Randolph; Brian Barrow, White River Junction; Ana I. Becker, Lebanon; Yee-Wah M. Brabant, Canaan; Carrie L. Brown, Hartford; Christine R. Brown, Randolph; Melinda S. Cass, Hartland; Allora C. Craig, Norwich; Nathan P. Dedell, Woodstock; Amber F. Delcore, South Royalton; Carrie G. Emerson, Topsham; Jaimie L. Erpelding, Bradford, Vt.; Justin T. Evans, Thetford; Kacey M. Gardner, Newport, N.H.; Kelly M. Gardner, Thetford; Rigel Q. Garrison-Botsford, South Strafford; Jason W. Gravel, Randolph; Daniel Gregoire, Thetford; Lois A. Gross. Tunbridge; Amanda R. Hilliker-Earl, Wilder; Crystal M. Johnson, Vershire; Amber L. Jones, East Corinth; Summer R. Keramis, Wilder; Katie S. McGranaghan, Bethel; Andrea H. McPhetres, Sharon; Amanda L. Merrill, Bethel; Elizabeth M. ODonnell, Fairlee; Kayce M. Penn, Thetford; Eloise R. Pierson, Meriden; Abigail J. Schramm, Bradford, Vt.; Jordan E. Selph, Piermont; Shawna L. Smith, East Corinth; Kasi M. Thresher, East Randolph; Gikanh A. Timberwolf, White River Junction; Jena O. Tuck, Windsor; and Jenny B. Tuthill, Bradford, Vt.