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University of Arkansas at Little Rock

Katrina Survivor Fulfills a Promise to Thrive

Before the age of 16, Penn Ross Jackson saw his father leave the family, lived with his mother out of a car on the streets of New Orleans, and was diagnosed with a brain tumor and underwent surgery. Then Hurricane Katrina hit.

But Jackson survived and thrived. On Saturday, May 19, he will receive his Bachelor of Arts degree in theatre arts at UALR’s morning commencement ceremony at the Jack Stephens Center.

He is the first in his family to earn a degree from a four-year college.

Next on his playbill: enrollment in the Master of Fine Arts program at the University of California, Irvine to continue his studies in stage management.

“Thanks to my mother, I have achieved so much and overcome odds and adversity to get where I am today –  looking into the light of a bright and successful future,” he said. She and Jackson’s step-father will be on hand to witness the milestone.

By all means, Jackson could have been a depressing statistic. He dropped out of school at 13. The New Orleans schools listed him as a homeschooler, but in reality, he was taking care of his mother when his father left the family.

“After a couple of years and plenty of relocating around the city, we were forced to live out of our vehicle for about three months,” he said.

In the post-Katrina upheaval, Jackson and his mother landed in a small town near Lafayette, La., where schools were enrolling displaced residents without paperwork due to the hurricane. He was the appropriate age of a sophomore, but scored at the senior level.

Another move took them to Hot Springs, Ark., where Jackson found his passion for theatre. He graduated from Lake Hamilton High School as senior class president and earned a full scholarship to UALR in theatre arts.

“I began stage managing my first semester and have continued to build my resume as a professional stage manager since,” he said. “It quickly appealed to me because of the organization and responsibility required. Because I have lived such an unstable life, the stability involved in this career is what has fueled my love for it.”

“Though stage management is my emphasis, I have taken advantage of the general theatre degree offered at UALR where I have been trained in areas of design, administration, and a variety of performances.”

Offstage, Jackson was a student ambassador for the College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences and has been consistently on the Dean’s List.

Off-campus, he has worked for the Arkansas Repertory Theatre as a box office assistant, production assistant, and assistant stage manager. He held similar positions at the Weekend Theatre, the Arkansas Festival Ballet, Rock City Dance Center, and Wildwood Park for the Arts.

“I am also the producing artistic director of my own theatre company, the Unified Artists Movement. The company was conceptualized and brought to life by six UALR students,” he said. “One of them, Crystal Mercer, is now a theatre instructor for the Children’s Guild of Baltimore. We hope to begin a second branch of the company together in the future.”

Jackson credits his mother for instilling in him a drive to succeed despite the roadblocks life has placed in his path.

“She, despite all of our trials and tribulations, has never allowed me to believe that I am weak or a failure. She pushed me in every way possible to be sure that my number one objective in life is my education,” Jackson said.