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My GRCC Story: At 70, Penelope Jones taps Futures for Frontliners to plan for her 'next'

Nov. 5, 2021, GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- When Penelope Jones saw the chance for a tuition-free degree at Grand Rapids Community College, she knew she had to take it.

Never mind she’s 70 years old.

“My whole life, I always wanted to go to college. So, when I heard about Futures for Frontliners, I knew if I didn’t walk through that door, it might never be open again,” said Jones, a Kentwood grandmother of five.

Futures for Frontliners is a state scholarship program for Michiganders who worked frontline jobs in essential industries during the state's COVID-19 shutdown. The scholarship provides eligible frontline workers with free in-district tuition to pursue an associate degree or a certificate at their local community college.

Futures for Frontliners and Michigan Reconnect have proven wildly popular for West Michigan adult learners. At GRCC, 24% of students this fall -- 3,017 out of 12,685 -- are enrolled in the scholarship programs.

Jones qualified for the free tuition because she worked at a local FedEx office facility throughout the pandemic.

But she’s certainly no stranger to hard work. Her hefty resume includes a lifetime of work with Grand Rapids-area nonprofits, businesses, a municipality and a hospital, among others. Her longtime husband, Eric D. Jones Sr., was pastor of the former Agape Christian Ministries International, where she also worked. Together, they raised three sons.

After her husband died in 2017, Jones moved in with her son David and his family. She retired from FedEx in June after nearly 15 years as a store consultant.

But Jones isn’t one to sit idle.

“I believe in staying busy and staying current,” she said. “So much I’ve seen has changed with the world going global and digital, and I said, ‘I need to know how to make it in that kind of world.’

“A GRCC degree is my opportunity to dust the cobwebs off, to be current and see where it leads me.”

This fall, she began her first semester with two virtual courses: business management and English 101. While the classes are challenging, she felt prepared after this summer’s FastTrack, a three-week learning lab at GRCC that helped strengthen her academic and study skills.

In FastTrack, Jones worked with a success coach to brush up on her writing skills and then tested well enough to sidestep the need for additional developmental courses.

“Mrs. Jones pushed herself by taking advantage of everything FastTrack offers and really set herself up for success,” said Sulari White, a GRCC academic advisor. “She is an amazing, inspirational and dedicated student.”

So, what’s ahead? Jones said she’s hopeful her business coursework will give her the expertise to serve on local boards as a well-informed – and active – participant.

“I don’t know exactly what I’ll be doing -- but I will not be sitting on my hands,” she said.

The story was reported by Beth McKenna for GRCC.

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