If Penny Wheeler hadn’t met Lanny Gneiting from BYU’s Dean of Students office when she was a teenager in Canada, her life may have included problems with substance abuse and a lack of education, which were both prevalent in her Indian tribe. But she took a big leap by leaving her home, her country and everyone she knew to come to Provo to pursue her education.
And now as the manager of the Provo branch of the University of Phoenix, she helps other students set educational and career goals that are often the path of most resistance. But Penny knows first-hand about breaking patterns.
She was the first in her family to move to the United States or to go to college, but her dreams got cut short when she faced a difficult pregnancy half-way through her bachelor’s degree at BYU.
However, she never gave up on the idea of finishing her education, and after several years, she began investigating the University of Phoenix.
Her tribe stepped up and paid for both her bachelor’s and master’s degree, which she completed in organizational management at the University of Phoenix in 1998.
After graduation, Penny worked for a credit union as a corporate trainer, but she again experienced some personal tragedy and had to change paths.
After a few months “in limbo,” she says, she ran into her academic counselor in the grocery store.
He suggested Penny come work for the University of Phoenix.
After what she describes as the hardest interview she’s ever had, Penny was hired as an academic counselor first in Salt Lake City and then in Provo. Shortly after, Penny became the manager of the Provo campus, which is just east of Novell in East Bay.
“Six years later, here I am,” Penny says. “I never thought this is where I would end up. I never thought I’d be in Utah of all places. I’m a little Indian girl from Central Canada, and here I am.”
Penny has learned from her roots and now has wings.
“Being an Indian has given me a strength,” she says. “They are a very spiritual people. Another thing I love about my culture is that we can laugh. There’s nothing more fun than being with a bunch of Indians. We have crazy Indian humor — whatever that is.”
As a cultural minority in Utah, Penny has at times felt outnumbered.
“But I’ve also met many, many people who are so accepting,” she says. “People need to be willing to learn from each other and willing to teach other. It’s OK for people to be different. Everyone has so much to contribute.”
Penny wants to set a strong example for her daughter, who is now 17.
“It is a gift for her to see that it is possible as a woman — as a Native American woman — to succeed in life,” Penny says. “I don’t think the youth today realize the opportunities that are out there for them.”
PENNY’S TIPS FOR BREAKING OUT OF THE MOLD
1. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want.
2. Surround yourself with people who believe in you.
3. Avoid the path of least resistance.