‘A survivor and an overcomer’
67-year-old Army vet Penelope Thurber battled through a lifetime of challenges to earn her degree. Now, she hopes to help others do the same.
By all accounts, Penelope Thurber, 67, shouldn’t be walking across a stage to collect her college degree this month. The challenges she faced beginning in childhood were enormous: abuse, bullying, poverty, homelessness and malnutrition.
And when she was 18, her parents died by gun violence.
“I didn’t have the start of what you would call a normal life,” Thurber said. “It was a terrible, turbulent childhood involving some unspeakable things. I’ve seen the effects of domestic violence both as a child and as an adult.”
More recently, as the Covid-19 pandemic swept across the globe in March 2020, she suffered two major strokes. Doctors told her children she wasn’t going to make it.
“I am a survivor, but I also feel like I am both a survivor and an overcomer,” she said. “I have overcome adversity, ethnic boundaries and stereotypes. I’ve overcome life’s challenges by choosing to do good and lovely things as my faith directs and encourages.”
Those good choices have led to a successful military career, medals and a record-setting weightlifting performance in the Military Olympics and now a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Metropolitan State University of Denver, which she hopes to use to help others overcome challenges.
Thurber credits her survival to seeking out love and support where she could find it. Often, that was through a few friends who took her to their church, where she could eat and get clothes, shoes and coats.
“I learned at a very early age that there were good and bad people,” she said. “I spent a lot of time at summer church camps and at my older relatives’ (residences) Fridays through Sundays.”
At 18, following the deaths of her parents, she joined the Army “to find some form of a good family life.” She spent nearly 10 years serving in Germany, Italy and South Korea, as well as the United States.
Thurber found she liked the black-and-white clarity of military life and appreciated the Army’s high standards.
“I didn’t see gray areas. It was a right-or-wrong, a good-or-bad, a pass-or-fail type of mentality,” she said. “The Army is where I learned perseverance, determination, resilience, courage and confidence.”
Thurber, who’s 5-foot-4 and 118 pounds, also thrived athletically in the military. She took part in mixed martial arts, kickboxing and weightlifting and set a record deadlift of 301 pounds. She earned gold, silver and bronze medals in powerlifting and the bench press in the Military Olympics.
After the Army, Thurber settled into civilian and family life, where she began to think more about education – she describes herself as a lifelong learner.
“Life’s lessons are for the young and old alike,” she said. “Education is an investment you make in yourself because you can’t help, mentor or teach others without a good educational foundation. We should invest in ourselves and others. It is the right thing to do.”
She said she chose MSU Denver because she is a Denver native and, considering her upbringing in Chicano culture, she felt that the University “would be most representative of me and my life.”
She still wants “to be a good representative of the school.”
After getting her degree – “a lifelong dream 45 years in the making” – Thurber plans to work as a counselor.
“All odds were against me in life,” she said, “but I hope my degree will allow me to pay it forward to help others, to serve as an inspiration for them.”