Redefining Tenacity
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Redefining Tenacity

Apr 27, 2023

A series of unexpected health problems nearly derailed Ashley Kern's Michigan Tech education. Now, she's using what she learned to help set others up for college success.

In January 2010, Ashley Kern returned to Houghton after her first winter break driving a black 1997 Chevy Silverado. The body of the truck was speckled with rust. Its bed was big enough to haul the sticks, pucks, pads, and helmets of an entire recreational hockey team, and the extended cab had room enough for a full line of forwards and defense. Its dashboard was a shade of nosebleed maroon that, depending on your aesthetic inclinations, was either painful to look at or beautiful to behold. The seats, console, and what was left of the floor liner were the same audacious crimson, as was the fabric headliner, from which dangled an assortment of jigs, spoons, spinners, cranks, and sundry other fishing lures. Its gas mileage registered, by today's fuel efficiency standards, somewhere between pitiful and offensive.

In 2010, most people would have seen Ashley's Silverado as an eyesore—or, at best, as just another truck. But at Michigan Tech, it was the finest, most pragmatic, most enviable automobile a first-year student could hope to drive. It was a vehicle guaranteed to win friends and influence people, though it wasn't so guaranteed to make it successfully up MacInnes Drive to the Student Development Complex ice rink—at least not without cause for concern.

As one of Michigan Tech's first Leading Scholars, Ashley was attending Tech, her dream school, on a full-ride scholarship. Her parents chipped in a modest allowance so she could focus on her studies. Growing up, the Kerns had moved around a lot, and everywhere they went, Ashley played hockey. If a town had teams and leagues for girls, she played with the girls; if not, she'd play with the boys. To her, it made little difference who her teammates and opponents were. All that mattered was that she got to play hockey. During Ashley's first fall semester at Michigan Tech, she practiced with the women's club team a few times, but found herself wanting more time on the ice. She was dismayed to learn that, despite a surplus of ice rinks in the region and no shortage of willing skaters, there was little opportunity for Tech students to get a team of friends together and go play hockey.

The problem as most people saw it was the cost. Rink rental rates were $150 to $200 per hour, far more than the average college student could afford. This economic hurdle had kept generations of hockey-mad Huskies off the ice for years. Ashley, however, sees problems differently than most people do. Today, Ashley describes the issue as such: "There's all this open ice, and there's no drop-in hockey. And we're at Michigan Tech: We just want to play more hockey." Expense did not even factor into her problem-solving equation—not because she was wealthy, but because she simply valued other things more than money. What mattered most to Ashley was that she and her friends got the college experience they were looking for.

Ashley's solution was simple, composed of equal parts gumption and risk. She saved up some of the stipend her parents gave her, and one night early in the spring semester, she fronted the money to rent ice time at the SDC. She did so hoping that enough people would show up to play and trusting they would pay her back. They did, and they did, so she rented ice time again.

Soon enough, she and a pack of co-ed friends from Wadsworth Hall were piling themselves and their hockey gear into her majestic Silverado most nights of the week. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, they played hockey at the SDC. On Wednesdays, they skated at Dee Stadium, the arena in downtown Houghton that bills itself as the birthplace of professional hockey. On other nights, she and her friends would play more casual games at one of the outdoor rinks close to town. Ashley's favorite was the barnlike Kenner Dome eight miles west of campus in Oskar. The lights there were not yet controlled by a timer, so she and her friends could skate as late as they wanted. "We basically played hockey every day except Sunday," Ashley says. "Sunday was like, 'Yeah, okay, we have homework to do.'"

Anyone of any gender and skill level could join these drop-in hockey games, and it didn't take long for word to spread. By Ashley's second year, her motley band of die-hard recreational hockey players had grown so numerous that she decided to make them an official student organization: Puck Club. She says playing drop-in hockey was where she felt most at home as an undergrad. "Starting and running Puck Club gave me a lot of confidence," she says. "It's also how I made most of my friends. I think I got made fun of when it became a whole club and everything. People were like, 'It's just hockey, chill out.' But everybody was happy because they could play hockey for cheap."

For $40 a semester or $5 a skate, Michigan Tech students can still join Puck Club and play drop-in hockey at the SDC twice a week. A group of Ashley's former Puck Club friends still get together often to play. Two of them even fell in love and got married. All of this because Ashley saw a problem differently, took a risk, rallied friends, and left behind a legacy.

Ashley, however, has not played hockey in more than five years. In the decade since she founded one of the most popular clubs at Michigan Tech, she has endured a series of Sisyphean trials more fit for Dante's Inferno than some sentimental Disney hockey film. And while she hopes her story can impact others for the better, she often has trouble telling it, with good reason: the crucible she's been through tested not just her will, but her very identity, demanding an answer to an impossible question: What does a problem-solver do when faced with a problem that cannot be solved?

During her second year at Michigan Tech, Ashley began to feel an unusual pain in her lower abdomen. She'd had period cramps before, but this was different. "Super-sharp, stabbing pain," she says. "Extremely painful. For long stretches of time." She describes it like passing a kidney stone, except for one difference: the pain did not pass.

Being more keen to talk hockey than to complain about her menstrual cycle, Ashley assumed the pain would subside without anyone close to her needing to know. She went to class, worked as a campus tour guide, and played hockey as often as she could. She also made frequent visits to doctors' offices and the emergency room, where her reports of feeling nauseous, in pain or vaguely unwell were met with skepticism. Tests were done. Lab work came back negative. She was told it was normal for a woman her age to cramp or not to feel good. She was told she was healthy, then sent home. "When you hear this from a doctor, you just kind of accept it," she recalls. "Like, 'Well, okay then, I guess life just sucks.'"

Finally, Ashley got an abnormal test result. The stabbing pains she'd been feeling were gallbladder attacks. Later that spring, she had her gallbladder surgically removed, made a quick recovery and returned to normal life. She assumed she would soon start feeling better.

Ashley's parents had purchased a rental house about a mile west of campus, which they leased to Ashley and some of her friends. The house's aesthetic was, she says, not shabby chic but "junky comfy"—perfect for a bunch of aspiring engineers who spent their waking hours doing schoolwork or playing hockey. The best part for Ashley, though, was not the bright colored walls or the overstuffed couch, but one of her roommates: her dog Reba. An old shepherd-heeler mix, Reba was fussy and protective of Ashley. Ashley's friends, many of whom had left their own childhood pets behind when they went to college, were happy to give Reba love, even if Reba dictated the terms of endearment. The house hummed with activity, especially on Sunday nights, when Ashley cooked dinner for everyone.

Early in her junior year, the stabbing pain returned. She brushed it off for as long as she could; soon it was worse than before. Most days the pain was so severe that Ashley could neither sleep nor eat. "So then it was like, 'Okay, what's going on?'" Ashley recalls. "I was right back to being in extreme pain and going to the ER or to the doctor all the time. I kept being like, 'That doesn't sound right, I need more help.' So I did advocate for myself, but it's exhausting. It's like a part-time job, just calling health insurance and dealing with what's going to be approved or not."

Ashley confided to a roommate about her pain. "She was my best friend at the time," Ashley says. "Super active, running all the time, just doing really well. And she told me she never has cramps." The news hit Ashley like a cross-check into the boards. "I was like, 'Wait, what? So you're not suffering for even just a week every month?' My world just shattered."

The pain got so bad that Ashley began to miss class. It was easier to stay home and study a textbook, but she missed required lectures.

Her grades began to slip due to violation of attendance policies. "You try to get to class," Ashley says. "You try to go to campus, but you sit at home debating, like, 'Should I push myself and do this, or should I stay at home and just try to finish an assignment?' You spend so much time debating what you should do next. And when you do that, when you start to spiral, that's when you're at risk of not continuing."

For the first time in her life, Ashley was falling short of her own high expectations. She was an intelligent, industrious solver of problems enrolled at a school full of people just like her—a school whose students, faculty, and staff have long embraced tenacity as one of their guiding values. Asking for help was not something Huskies like Ashley did.

Halfway through her junior year, Ashley was on the verge not just of losing her full-ride scholarship, but of dropping out of school. She felt guilty for missing class. She felt ashamed of her declining grades. And even though she was not, as she says, "being mischievous or anything," she began to see herself as some sort of delinquent. "And when you feel bad like that," she says, "it's really hard to approach a professor and say, 'I need some help. I need some leeway. I need something or somebody to turn this around.' I mean, how do you communicate to a professor that things are out of your control?"

Michigan Tech has services and support to offer students like Ashley, and the person who knows best how they have changed over the years is Susan Liebau. Until recently, Liebau served as the University's director and associate dean of student academic support. The majority of students she counsels are first-year students who did not need to study in high school, but have been rudely awakened by Tech's academic rigor. A case like Ashley's is not as common, but also not unheard of—and when high-achieving students begin to struggle in their later years at Tech, it can be overwhelming. "It's sometimes more overwhelming than if they had struggled the whole time," says Liebau, "because they're not sure how to use the resources we have or where to go."

Among the resources now available are all those one might expect: tutoring, counseling services, and academic accommodations, plus a few more Liebau notes as being both unique to Tech and particularly effective. Around the time Ashley was first struggling, the University implemented a comprehensive program of peer-to-peer coaching to support students with things like study skills and time management. More recently, Tech has ramped up messaging around mental health and wellbeing. But the two most versatile tools in Tech's student support toolbox, Liebau says, are the University's learning centers and academic advisors, both notable for being decentralized. "The content in the learning centers is tied deliberately to faculty, so the faculty members are really involved, which creates a different kind of accessibility for students," Liebau says. "Academic advisors are often the first ones to have a conversation with a student who is struggling, or to check in. And faculty are really good about reporting those concerns and letting us know if something seems weird."

Ashley was studying geological engineering at the time she started having health issues. Her advisor was Professor John Gierke, who served on the committee that recruited Ashley for the Leading Scholars program and whom she describes admiringly as "not exactly the warm and fuzzy type." Gierke has taught at Tech for 33 years. He has attended his fair share of trainings on how to support students with different physical and mental needs. "But, you know, a one-hour workshop on mental health does not make me a psychologist," he says. "A little training is better than none, I guess. Maybe we know better what not to do, at least, but I never feel qualified really, not when it comes to things like that."

Qualified or not, Gierke sent Ashley an email when she was on the verge of dropping out of school, one that she says changed her life. The message wasn't formal or disciplinary, at least not that Ashley could tell. It was just a simple note that said, "Hey, come to my office. Let's talk."

It was all she needed to hear. "That's when it dawned on me: 'Okay, if professors can see that I'm struggling this much, I probably need to take a step back and reevaluate.'" Which is exactly what Ashley did. Despite feeling weak, guilty, and ashamed for doing so, she took the second semester of her junior year off from school, resting and focusing on her health at her parents' house in Minnesota. While there, she had exploratory surgery. This resulted in another diagnosis: endometriosis, a disorder in which a tissue similar to endometrial lining grows outside the uterus in areas it is not supposed to grow. Though the condition affects no less than 10 percent of women, endometriosis often goes undiagnosed or misdiagnosed for years, in part because the disorder presents so uniquely in each person. Symptoms range from nausea, vomiting, blood clots, and irregular bleeding to chest pain, collapsed lung, sciatic pain, and infertility. As endometriosis specialist Iris Kerin Orbuch writes in a recent Washington Post story about the disease, "Someone could have a belly full of endo and not be in any pain. Someone could have a spot of endo and be in extreme pain and use a walker."

This surgeon, as Ashley recalls, told her he had found only a small amount of the tissue, which he burned out using surgical ablation. He assured her the endometriosis would not return and sent her on her way with a clean bill of health.

While recovering in Minnesota, Ashley passed the time helping her dad at his environmental consulting business. There, she discovered an aptitude for data analysis. Using statistics, specialized coding, and artificial intelligence to discover solutions for clients appealed to the problem-solving part of Ashley's personality in ways that geological engineering never fully had. She returned to Tech for her senior year feeling better both physically and mentally, and she promptly switched her major to mathematics.

Gierke was surprised to learn that his intervention was so instrumental in Ashley's life. According to him, his approach to supporting students is nothing more than common sense. "If faculty have an open mind and realize that students are people, too, and just treat them like people, then maybe they'll seek help if they need it," he says. "Also, I tell parents that one of the benefits of being in a small department is that students don't slip through the cracks as much. So, people who are not prone to asking for help or are really introverted will often not get away with that here because we're so small."

Gierke's words echo a sentiment shared by Liebau. "You're always happy when you can get struggling students through the door, because hopefully you can create relationships," she says. "I think that's something we try to do here that might be different than at larger institutions. I don't know how you manage a population of 40,000 students. I've been to those campuses, but I don't know how relationships are built there. Obviously, somehow, people find community there. But here it's large enough to have resources and small enough that you have people paying attention. So if somebody has a concern, they can reach out and say, 'Have you seen anything? Have you heard anything?' And those sorts of relationships are really powerful."

For all the talk of tenacity, Liebau finds the Michigan Tech community to be, at its core, nurturing. John Lehman, the University's vice president for university relations and enrollment, agrees. Like Gierke, Lehman met Ashley when she was a high school senior being recruited as a Leading Scholar. "I think every university has a safety net, but the holes in the net are different sizes," he says. "I think ours are a little smaller here. We're a big enough institution to have people of the caliber of John Gierke, but we're small enough that there's 360 degrees of situational awareness about remarkable students like Ashley. Like, I know John, and John knows Susan, and Susan knows me, and we're always talking about students. And so when students are struggling, we're able to marshal resources together more easily than at larger institutions, where they're not able to make those connections so quickly. It's a reflection of the ethos of care here."

This culture of care is partly due to Michigan Tech's location. "There is a collective sense of looking out for each other here," says Lehman. "Our winters put everyone on the same level. The president has to shovel his car out of the snow just like the students do. I think that sands the edges of the egos here, and it creates a camaraderie. I know it does. And the only people who really get it are the people who have been here, who have experienced it."

In the winter of her senior year, when Ashley felt well enough to attend class, she drove her Silverado across town to campus. In the bed of the truck she kept a snow shovel, just in case she ever needed to dig herself or someone else out of a snowbank. The truck's interior door handles were shoddy, and on most winter days the windows would freeze shut. Once parked on campus, Ashley often had to pry open the sliding rear window and crawl out of it into the truck bed.

It was the kind of solvable problem becoming rare to find in other areas of Ashley's life. The pain in her abdomen, which was supposed to have subsided after her second surgery, had not subsided. She continued to have trouble eating and sleeping. She spent more time curled up under blankets at home alone and less time on campus or out with her friends. She was a far cry from her former hockey-everyday- but-Sunday self. "All your friends are super active and pursuing engineering degrees," she says, describing her feelings from that time. "They all have their amazing lives happening, and you're the one who is used to being like that, and you're stepping back and saying, 'I can't do it.' That was just so hard."

The excruciating physical pain was compounded by the burden of having to say no to so many activities her friends invited her to—and also by her friends' response to her withdrawal. Most had trouble accommodating Ashley's need to slow down. Bonds frayed. Friendships fractured. And while she wishes things had gone differently, Ashley now understands. "People don't want to adjust to the sick girl who doesn't really know what's wrong," she says. "When your whole friendship has been based on activity, they don't want to slow down and just have a movie night. And then people doubt you. Like, they think it's in your head, or it's emotional. I think it comes from a good place, because people want you to be healthy. They want it to just be something you can fix. So it's hard for people who love you to accept that you have this thing that might last forever."

The Silverado that once hauled packs of hockey friends to rinks around town became less party truck and more solitary refuge. When the weather was nice, Ashley and her loyal sidekick Reba took long drives up the Keweenaw Peninsula. They went on short hikes to waterfalls at a slow pace they could sustain. Ashley recalls those lonesome trips with Reba fondly, but admits that even on her best days, she was burdened with self-doubt. With gallbladder disease and endometriosis eliminated from her list of potential culprits, Ashley was beginning to fear she might never know the cause of her pain—or worse, that maybe she was the cause of it, because she was somehow defective or damaged, not just physically, but mentally as well.

And yet, Ashley persevered. Data analysis continued to fascinate her, and the entrepreneurial spirit that had once led her to start Puck Club began to resurface her senior year. "I enjoyed the autonomy of problem-solving with statistics," she recalls. "Also, though I didn't know it at the time, I needed to figure out a way to be able to work for myself. I needed that flexibility. I couldn't hold a normal job because my pain was so debilitating."

Ashley graduated in 2015 and immediately enrolled in Tech's fledgling master's degree program in data science. She also signed up for the SmartStart program at MTEC SmartZone, a local business incubator that helped her take an idea for a data analytics company and grow it into a small business. Patrick Visser took her on as a client in the SmartZone's Transformative Technologies program, an informal accelerator geared toward small companies that have large market potential and need help raising private investment capital. Together, they decided that Ashley's data expertise would apply best to the educational technology sector, which the investment community felt had fallen behind in terms of analytics and software. Soon, Ashley and her company, SightLine, were using predictive analytics to help colleges and universities enhance recruitment strategies, increase enrollment, improve student retention, sharpen financial aid budgets, and assess their market position and brand.

After establishing SightLine, Ashley ran into Lehman one day at the Keweenaw Brewing Company. When she began explaining the analytics work she was doing, Lehman immediately saw how beneficial her ideas could be for Michigan Tech. Soon after, Ashley's alma mater became one of her early clients. "John is just so tuned into what's working and what's not working in enrollment and retention," Ashley says. "Despite not being a data scientist himself, he's able to look at the data and pick it apart to make a good decision, or to make it work better for him. He's innovative for sure. He tests me."

By 2018, a growing pool of clients was paying Ashley to do the thing she did best—solve problems—and SightLine was reeling in its first major financial investments. By all external measures, Ashley was thriving. Her public image—on SightLine's website, with hands perched confidently atop the keyboard of her laptop, and on social media, smiling proudly with her latest trout or salmon from a boat on Lake Superior—only reinforced that impression. "Just because schools and businesses promote this image of 'success, success, success' doesn't mean that's how life always is," says Ashley.

Beneath the facade, she was in the worst pain of her life. Tests revealed that the endometriosis had returned and was spreading. Beyond the severe abdominal cramps she'd endured for close to a decade, Ashley was suffering mood swings, night sweats, and an accelerated heart rate. If she wasn't fighting a migraine, she was dealing with brain fog, dizziness, or general fatigue. Among the most heartbreaking of her symptoms: nerve damage in her legs, which made it difficult to skate and impossible to play hockey.

Ashley underwent more surgeries. Each one resulted in more scar tissue, which resulted in more complications. For every new surgery, she tried to find a doctor better educated on endometriosis, but this proved difficult. According to the Endometriosis Foundation of America, of the 40,000 obstetrician-gynecologists in the United States, only about 150 are trained and skilled in delivering up-to-date endometriosis treatments. One doctor told Ashley her endometriosis was now growing not just between her abdominal organs, but on the organs themselves. Another told her that her organs were starting to stick together. "Either the endometriosis just progressively kept getting worse, or doctors were being more honest—I don't know," says Ashley. "That's just part of the problem with endometriosis. You have to trust your doctor to be educated and to tell you the truth, and you're not always sure they are."

Ashley acknowledges that the up-and-down nature of her illness took its toll not just on her, but on her entire support network. "After each surgery, you're expected to be healed," she says. "You're expected to get up, start your life, and just pick up like everybody else does. And sure, you have better times, and people want to grasp onto that. So when you say, 'I'm going downhill again,' even your family has a hard time accepting it. Which is okay, but it still hurts."

Visser says Ashley's situation was a first for him as a mentor. "It's easy for us to always push, push, push our entrepreneurs, because you want the best for their companies. I was obviously concerned for Ashley's health. I also wasn't sure what was going to happen with SightLine." He eventually decided the best approach was for Ashley to come to him and the SmartZone as she needed their help. "To Ashley's credit, she found a way to work within the constraints of her health condition and to perform the work she needed to do at a pace that worked for her. And that's one thing I really admire about Ashley: her work ethic. Her drive and dedication and passion. Even though she wasn't experienced in starting a business, Ashley learned quickly, and she was always willing to put in the work."

Ashley soon learned that for all her strengths in data modeling and analytics, she needed help communicating her results to schools, parents, and students. In early 2019, she sent a LinkedIn message to Erin Thompson, her former supervisor in Admissions back when Ashley had been a campus tour guide. Thompson is a Michigan Tech alumna who has worked with and for many higher education institutions around the country. She is also a proud native of the Upper Peninsula, with the sisu tattoo to prove it. The enigmatic Finnish word, which translates in English to something like grit or tenacity, is inscribed in cursive on her left forearm.

Thompson signed on with SightLine for a few hours of consulting here and there, gradually increasing her work with the company as the client list continued to grow. In early 2020, Ashley offered her a full-time job. "I was just getting the new rhythm down at the stable corporate job I had taken not long before, but I left it and jumped on board with Ashley because I believed in what we were doing," says Thompson. "I loved that we were helping students gain access to education, looking for ways that more students could get an education. I'm a first-generation college student myself. I believe that if you want to better yourself, you should be able to. And I saw the strides we were making in retention rates and enrollment rates for first-gen college students, and that was just really important for me."

Thompson became SightLine's chief operating officer in February 2020. One month later, the world went into pandemic shutdown. The profound uncertainty of the next year was especially acute for colleges and universities, many already reeling from an enrollment and retention crisis that had begun years earlier. For SightLine, this resulted in a kind of prolonged business quarantine. "We basically didn't have customers talking to us for nine, 10, 12 months," says Ashley. "I had enough momentum built up to barely squeeze us through, but we definitely went through times of cutting pay. I'm so grateful Erin stuck with me, because she could have easily gone somewhere else."

"I was really reevaluating my decision," Thompson admits. "Our clients didn't want to answer the phone. Universities didn't want to talk about buying data analytics when they didn't know how they were going to support the students they currently had. It was a lean time for a while, for sure."

Meanwhile, Ashley was approaching a turning point in her struggle with endometriosis. She had found Dr. Ken Sinervo of the Center for Endometriosis Care in Atlanta, a renowned patient advocate and one of the few expert surgeons using laparoscopic excision, a procedure in which rogue endometrium-like tissue is cut out using precision techniques to avoid damaging surrounding structures. After meeting with Ashley and reviewing her case, Sinervo diagnosed her with the most severe form of endometriosis—stage four—and also with adenomyosis, a related but different condition in which endometrial tissue grows into the muscular wall of the uterus. On Ashley's way into surgery, Sinervo held her hand and said a prayer. For Ashley, a woman of strong faith, the gesture meant everything.

That day Ashley underwent an extensive operation that included laparoscopic excision and a full hysterectomy. While the procedure left Ashley unable to bear children, in many other ways it changed her life for the better. She has less pain and more energy than she's had since her first year at Michigan Tech. And while there's no guarantee more complications won't someday arise, for now she feels good and is more optimistic than ever. In August 2022, Ashley set a goal for the winter: to play hockey with her friends. In January, she ventured out on the ice with some of her former Puck Club friends. She says it was "rough"—but not as bad as she thought it would be. "Everyone was super understanding that I am just slow now," she says, laughing. "It was so great to get out and show myself that I can still do it."

"I don't know anybody who's gone through what I've been through," Ashley says. "I know people who've had endometriosis, or who've had struggles running their business, or who've had other personal things come up. I don't know anybody who's had to deal with all these things one after another after another. And I'm good. I'm way stronger than I thought I was. I'm doing well and I'm happy."

So then, what does a problem-solver do when faced with a problem that cannot be solved?

It is a question with only two possible answers— quit fighting and give up, or just keep going, like Ashley did. Along the way, she developed the kind of entrepreneurial data expertise that University administrators envision being honed at the Center for Convergence and Innovation, which will one day house both the College of Computing and the College of Business. She also redefined those cherished regional values of tenacity and sisu to include things like asking for help, advocating for yourself, putting your health first, and accomplishing work at a pace you can sustain.

Earlier this year, Ashley and the SightLine team launched a product called the College Shopper, a data-driven resource that can compare up to 25 universities at a time. The tool is designed to help prospective college students and their parents make sense of opaque higher education metrics like median net price and true out-of- pocket cost, all so they can find the school that's best for them—a life decision Ashley thinks should be made not on college rankings, but on fit and value. The College Shopper is just the first element of a larger vision Ashley has for SightLine's future, one that Visser, Lehman, and others anticipate will upend the entire education marketplace to the benefit of students, parents, and universities alike—and a vision borne out of her own struggles to chart an unconventional path through college.

"I really want SightLine to be the bridge between students and universities," Ashley says. "I want to help universities navigate the changes in the competitive marketplace, and I want to help students make better decisions. Because thousands of dollars of debt is not a great place to start your life, especially when there are these things that pop up, like your health deteriorating, which you didn't foresee."

"Mostly I want students to know that there are many different paths to success," Ashley continues. "I wish that college was all about learning, but unfortunately things happen that can make earning a degree a lot harder for people like me. I like to share my experience so people know that if there's something that you need to ask for that will help you get your education, it's always better to ask. I didn't know that, and I wish I had."

Ashley drives a Subaru now, but she still owns the old Chevy Silverado. Most days it stays parked at her parents' house in Bete Gris in the Keweenaw. It rides a bit lower these days, and the tailgate needs two rubber tarp straps to keep it both vertical and shut, but Ashley takes it out on hiking and fishing trips when she comes to visit. Perhaps even more so than her two Michigan Tech diplomas, Ashley's truck remains an indelible token of her Husky experience: a symbol of resilience in the face of tremendous adversity, and a reminder of the culture of care that embraced Ashley during her time on campus, which she now extends to others in her life and career. In other words, the truck is the very same thing it was when she first drove it up MacInnes Drive to the SDC ice rink: a means for Ashley Kern to carry others with her and ensure they all get the experience and opportunities they deserve.

"I just don't ever want to let the people I love fall through the cracks," Ashley says. "I want them to know I care about them, and I believe success will come from that. For me, goal-setting isn't like, 'My business needs to look like this,' or, 'We need to have this many employees and this much revenue.' Bringing my people with me is what's most important. I'm lucky. I have good people in my life."

Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, Michigan's flagship technological university offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.