Retired Air Force Col. Paula Penson

Retired U.S. Air Force Col. Paula Penson, an adjunct instructor at Pellissippi State, will headline the college’s upcoming Pellissippi Strong luncheon on April 20.

Celebrate Pellissippi State Community College’s outstanding alumni and support current students at the college’s Pellissippi Strong luncheon April 20. 

The event, presented by FirstBank and hosted by Tearsa Smith of WATE-TV, will be held 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m. Wednesday, April 20, at the Hilton Knoxville Airport, 2001 Alcoa Highway, Alcoa. Individual tickets are $50 and include lunch. You can purchase tickets or select levels of sponsorship here. All proceeds benefit the college’s Greatest Need Fund. 

“After two years of alternate solutions to in-person events, the Foundation is thrilled to gather together our alumni, industry partners and community friends to celebrate what it means to be Pellissippi Strong,” said Aneisa Rolen, executive director of the Pellissippi State Community College Foundation. “We are focused on sharing the stories that bring our Pellissippi State mantra ‘start strong, stay strong and finish strong’ to life.” 

Retired Air Force Col. Paula Penson, an adjunct instructor at Pellissippi State, is a perfect example of what it means to “stay strong” and will kick off the event by sharing her remarkable story. Raised in deep poverty, Penson joined the military to get away from home, but later attempted suicide. She has married and divorced three times, held her 17-year-old son as he died from injuries sustained in a car accident and survived cancer. And yet she persisted, serving 40 years in the Air Force before retiring in January 2015. 

“My mother taught me that education is the only guaranteed road out of poverty, and even though she died when I was 18 years old, I never forgot it,” Penson said. “It took 15 years for me to get my bachelor’s and master’s degrees, taking one class at a time. From that education, I made rank in the military all the way up to Colonel.” 

Following Penson’s keynote, Pellissippi State will present the college’s annual alumni awards. The Distinguished Alumni Award, announced by FirstBank, highlights an outstanding graduate in recognition of significant professional achievement and service to the community, while the Peggy Wilson Volunteer Alumni Award, sponsored and announced by Discovery Inc., highlights an outstanding graduate in recognition of extraordinary service to the Pellissippi State community. 

“We are delighted to help honor Pellissippi State’s distinguished alumni,” said Brent Ball, Knoxville president of FirstBank. “It shows both the amazing work they are accomplishing in the community and the real value of education. The time you spend in school will pay dividends your entire life.”  

For more information about the event, including sponsorship opportunities, visit