Against great odds, Mary Denman has become an academic heavyweight.
The 2010 Pellissippi State Community College graduate has been named one of only five college students across the U.S. to receive the $7,500 Hites Transfer Scholar award, to be applied toward the completion of a bachelor’s degree. More than 500 students applied for the scholarship, sponsored by Phi Theta Kappa, the oldest international honor society for two-year colleges.
Denman also was named a 2010 Coca-Cola Silver Scholar, for which she was awarded $1,250. And that is in addition to receiving an Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, worth up to $30,000 per year for up to three years.
Denman, who graduated with an Associate of Science degree from Pellissippi State in May, credits her loving family, friends and learned ability to make her own way in the world with her academic achievement and the resultant scholarships. But to an outside observer, her family life and her academic success don’t seem to go together.
“My father, who has been homeless for many years since my parents divorced, is still trying to get on his feet,” said the former Farragut High School student. “But my mother was always very emotionally supportive of me and my brother and sister.
“For all practical purposes, she was a single mom. During the most important years of our young lives, she made an effort to keep us all close, despite any family troubles and even though we could only afford certain necessities. We can’t all choose the easy life.”
Mary Denman’s life didn’t start out easy. And for a while it looked like it would continue in that same vein.
“I hated high school. I couldn’t really find peace in that kind of social environment,” she said, “so I graduated early in December 2004, thinking I’d take six months off. But during that time, I became increasingly involved in drug use.”
Denman could have stayed on the same, deadend road, but she opted instead to pursue a better life for herself.
“Eventually I began to realize that I wanted to go to college and that I needed to straighten out my life. I felt like I could not give up or I would be stuck in that place.”
So Denman got herself into college. She filled out all the applications and registered herself for classes at Pellissippi State, without help from family or friends.
“I used to be jealous of the kids who have parents to do almost everything for them,” she said, “but after having done all those things by myself for so long, things that seemed nearly impossible before are now a breeze. I’m actually very happy about the fact that my parents left it totally up to me whether I went to college or not.”
During Denman’s time at Pellissippi State, she was inducted into Phi Theta Kappa honor society. And when the student Recycling Club met to plan a project, she immersed herself. She labored for three years to make Pellissippi State a greener campus. She also coordinated the school’s participation in RecycleMania, a nationwide 10-week competition among colleges and universities to promote waste reduction.
More than 12,000 pounds of recyclable materials were collected at Pellissippi State during the competition.
“I weighed it all myself,” she said, laughing.
“Mary’s focus on campus recycling has included not only the work of doing the collecting, sorting and cleaning,” said Ann Kronk, “but also taking it upon herself to shop for the ‘best deals’ for the college in transferring the collected recyclables to a recycling company.” Kronk, an associate professor of Natural and Behavioral Sciences, is a faculty PTK sponsor.
Now, with an associate’s degree under Denman’s belt and a bachelor’s degree in her sights, she’s looking toward devoting her career to helping the environment.
“I’m interested in biomimicry,” she said. In biomimicry, researchers study nature’s best ideas ?and then adapt them to solve human problems.
“It’s a new term but an old idea of learning from the genius of nature in order to improve the quality of life—of all life—through engineering and design.”
Denman has just started as a biosystems engineering major at UT-Knoxville and hopes to either go on to Massachusetts Institute of Technology or law school. Her advice to young people wanting to go to college but lacking the funds:
“Think big. Accomplishment can be intimidating at first; you may not feel like you have it in you, but once you achieve something great, you’ll realize that you can go even further. Apply yourself to the fullest, and I promise it will be noticed. Also, develop the ability to take care of yourself. There are too many people struggling for support for school. If you don’t join in that struggle, it’s probably not going to happen.”
PTK recognizes the 2010 Hites Transfer Scholars at the 2011 International Convention in Seattle on April 7-9. Hites Transfer Scholars will host an educational forum on stage April 8, and Denman hopes to be part of it.
“I’ve kind of always been optimistic,” she said. “I’m not sure why, but I’m glad I am.”