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Taylorsville Journal

Taylorville para-educator receives surprise scholarship from WGU

Jun 02, 2021 09:56AM ● By Hannah LaFond

Elizabeth Ashby with friends, family, and Taylorsville Faculty after receiving the Resiliency Grant. (Photo courtesy Andrea McMillan)

By Hannah LaFond | [email protected]

Elizabeth (Lizz) Ashby thought she was going about a typical workday when she walked into a classroom only to be greeted by applause from faculty, students, friends, and family. Western Governors University was awarding her their Resiliency Grant, and they'd all gathered to celebrate. 

Ashby has worked as a Special Education Para-Educator at Taylorsville Elementary School since the 2013-2014 school year. For Ashby, the job was a great fit from the beginning, and after volunteering her first year, the school offered her the position to continue. 

"The most amazing part is when you see the student finally gets something you've been working on and their excitement," Ashby told the City Journals. "It's like they're thinking, 'Oh wow, I know how to do this. Can I go show the whole world?'" 

While working in the classroom and helping students reach their full potential felt like a dream come true, Ashby started to realize her position as a para-educator wouldn't be practical for her in the long term. 

"I honestly never thought I could become a (special education) teacher," Ashby said. "But, I really enjoyed working in the classroom and knew that if I wanted to do this long term, I needed more money so that I could move out of my mom's house, have my own place, and get medical benefits."

So, she applied and was accepted to a program at WGU to become a special education teacher. The problem was she wasn't sure she'd have the funds to finish schooling. But, Ashby started her classes and applied to as many scholarships as she was eligible for, praying one of them would come through. 

Before notifying Ashby about the scholarship, WGU reached out to Taylorsville Elementary's principal, Andrea McMillan. They informed McMillan about the Resiliency Grant and asked if she thought Ashby was a good candidate for the funds. McMillan didn't hesitate to confirm that the scholarship was well-deserved. 

Ever since becoming the principal four years ago, McMillan said she'd seen Ashby's constant dedication to her students. Working as a para-educator, Ashby assists the special education teacher. McMillan said that rather than simply following directions, Ashby has always impressed her by working along with the teacher to take on a more active role in her student's progress.

"Lizz really wants the best for the students she works with. She wholeheartedly invests in their growth. Whether it's personal growth or their academic growth." McMillan said. "She dedicates her everything to these kids, and I see her being that as a teacher too."

So, when it came time to recognize Ashby for that hard work, McMillan was happy to make the arrangements for it to be a special moment.

At first, WGU suggested delivering the scholarship to Ashby during the same week as Taylorsville's spring break. But, McMillan suggested they push it back to April 8, so there would be people at the school to celebrate with Ashby.

McMillan said she thought it was important that the students see Ashby receive the scholarship because it could show them the possibilities of attending college even if finances made that difficult.

"Since then, we've had a couple of classmates say things about how they now want to try to get a scholarship to go to college one day. I think that was kind of an inspirational thing for them," McMillan said.

Not only did faculty and students get to be a part of the day, but McMillan also reached out to Ashby's mother and Joann Sellers— a close friend and the first teacher Ashby worked with— and asked them to come to the school. 

When the day arrived, they arranged everything to surprise Ashby, but there was a slight hiccup when the representative from WGU was running late. McMillan scrambled to keep Ashby in a different classroom so she wouldn't see her mother or Sellers and have the surprise spoiled.

"It was a crazy, wild morning mostly because for me to be in the right location at the right time, they had to switch my schedule," Ashby said.

Once the representative arrived, they called Ashby into the room where unbeknownst to her students, faculty, her mother, and Sellers were all waiting.

Upon entering the room, Ashby said her first thought was, "Why are there so many adults here?" Then she saw Sellers and her mother and knew something must be going on.

One of Ashby's students gave her a bouquet, and McMillan brought a card that all the faculty had signed to give to Ashby. Then Melissa Jensen, WGU Strategic Partnerships Manager, presented Ashby with the Resiliency Grant. 

"There were tears starting to form, and I kept breathing and practicing my mindfulness techniques because I didn't want to cry in front of a bunch of students and adults," Ashby said.

Ashby sees the scholarship as an answer to her prayers. It makes it possible for her to finish her classes and become certified as a teacher to continue working with the students she loves. Ashby is particularly passionate about continuing in special education because she was in special education as a child.

"I don't use the word dumb anymore, but at that age, I thought I was dumb. I want to help these kids not feel that," Ashby said. "That's why I really like being a para because you work closely with the students. And as a teacher, I'll just get to continue that working with the students and helping them."

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