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One student’s long path to Convocation

Book cover titled "Animals and Business Ethics" with an image of an animal pen
Photo courtesy of Lisa Penner.

When Lisa Penner walks across the stage as a University of Guelph-Humber graduate at Convocation this year, it will mark the end of a long journey — in more ways than one.

First, it will mark a huge step in Penner’s educational journey. When she graduates from UofGH’s Community Social Services program, Penner will finally meet her longtime goal of earning a University degree nearly 25 years after she initially graduated from college and entered the social work field.

And in addition to that decades-long journey toward an undergraduate degree, Convocation will also mark the culmination of another long trip: an 18-hour drive, spread across two days, from Penner’s family home in Dryden, Ont., to the ceremony in Toronto.

For Penner, making that long trip with her husband and three children — ranging in age from nine to 12 — might not be convenient, but it is worth the effort to recognize a milestone moment in her life.

“I always wanted to make sure my children saw when I graduated from University. I want them to see the importance of education as they get older,” Penner says. “Personally, I’m so excited to finish my degree. I’m pumped – I don’t know how else to say it.

“That’s why I’m going to drive all that way to walk across that stage.”

Education to back up her experience

Before coming to the University of Guelph-Humber, Penner built up decades of professional experience in social work.

Much of her time has been spent working with children. Penner has worked in a group home for the Children’s Aid Society, as an Intensive Behavioural Intervention Therapist working with children with autism, and as a Child Development Counsellor for a children’s mental health program in the Dryden area.

Now, Penner works as an Indigenous Support Network Coordinator with the Grand Council Treaty #3. In her role, Penner works to support people, families, and communities who have endured a variety of different traumas, including crime, natural disaster, or the sudden loss of a loved one.

Although Penner’s jobs have been quite different, one point of consistency is that Penner has strived to make a difference in her home community.

“I travelled around when I was younger, but there’s no place like home,” said Penner, whose hobbies include volunteering with youth sports, cross-country skiing, and kayaking on the lake that her family lives on.

“People say home is where the heart is, and my heart was always in northwestern Ontario.”

In fact, that is part of what drew Penner to the University of Guelph-Humber: she could complete her degree remotely without leaving Dryden.

Juggling her studies with a full-time job wasn’t easy — especially with three children who were at home completing their own schoolwork online due to the pandemic — but Penner stuck to a strict schedule and enjoyed her studies. She especially liked collaborating with other students, and she liked that she could get to know her professors, whom she found to be accessible and accommodating.

And even with decades of professional experience under her belt, she found a lot of value in what she was studying.

“There was still so much to learn,” said Penner, who is now considering pursuing a master’s degree.

“Before this, I had the work experience — now I have the education behind me as well. In terms of my work, I could transfer into other positions now with more confidence.”

Sharing a big day with her family

When reflecting on what initially drew her to this career, Penner thinks back to the example set by her parents.

“I come from a family of helpers,” Penner says. “My mom’s a nurse. My biological father and brother are both doctors. So I always knew I wanted to be a helper of some kind.”

Now, she hopes her own educational journey — and this 18-hour trek — can inspire her own children the same way her parents influenced her.

“I don’t know if my kids really understand the amount of effort that an undergraduate degree takes,” Penner said.

“I want them to see this happen, so that when they’re a little older and finishing high school and walking the stage themselves, they’ll understand it was a monumental moment. They might not recognize it now, but hopefully it will set in for them someday.”