Breast cancer doesn’t stop ed tech student from earning her doctorate

Chemotherapy, a double mastectomy, reconstructive surgery and a regimen of pills to counteract the side effects of other prescriptions couldn’t stop Johanna “Jo” Kenney from earning her doctorate in education technology from UF while holding down a full-time job—in Texas.


Jo Kenney, center, poses before her graduation ceremony with her parents Robert and Susan Kenney, in front of the statue of Gator mascots Albert and Alberta at UF’s Emerson Alumni Hall.

When Kenney was presented with an Ed.D. degree during the UF College of Education’s commencement on April 25 at the O’Connell Center, few people knew what the past 18 months had been like for the 41-year-old distance-learning student, who had just flown to Gainesville from San Antonio for the ceremony.

Kenney said “it hit me like a ton of bricks” when she was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer in February of 2013 — three years into her doctoral coursework at UF.

“Time stood still,” she said. “I was in shock.”

But Kenney regrouped, and she and her doctors mapped out a treatment strategy that would allow her to keep her civilian job with the Department of Defense at Fort Sam Houston and continue working on her dissertation and coursework.  

“They told me 2013 was really going to suck, but then I’d be cured,” Kenney said.

 After the first three of eight chemotherapy sessions, Kenney successfully defended her dissertation proposal via Skype.

 A month later, she was asked to take over as interim head of the education technology department at the Medical Education and Training Campus — a joint military facility at Fort Sam Houston — when her boss of three years quit unexpectedly.

 In June, Kenney’s grueling year got more “sucky” thanks to federal budget sequestration. For 11 weeks she had to take off one day unpaid each week. The subsequent government shutdown resulted in Kenney being furloughed in October, when she was home recovering from the double mastectomy she underwent in September.   

 “And that’s the short version of all that happened,” Kenney quipped. “There were times when I wasn’t trying to take things one day at a time. I was surviving from moment to moment.”

 Through it all, she kept her eyes on the prize.

 In March of this year, Kenney summoned the strength to fly to Gainesville and  successfully defend her dissertation, titled The Future of Simulations in Allied Healthcare Education and Training: A Modified Delphi Study Identifying Their Instructional and Technical Feasibility.

Jo Kenney (center) poses with her family before UF's commencement for doctoral graduates. Pictured with her in front row are her mother, Susan Kenney, and her aunt, Carolyn Barczc; back row are her brother, Jeff Kenney, and her father Robert Kenney.

Jo Kenney (center) poses with her family before UF’s commencement for doctoral graduates. Pictured with her in front row are her mother, Susan Kenney, and her aunt, Carolyn Barczc; back row are her brother, Jeff Kenney, and her father Robert Kenney.

 “It’s very difficult to be articulate after you’ve had chemo,” she said. “My adviser and three other professors didn’t go easy on me, but they were patient. They gave me time to finish my sentences.”

 Kenney also has maintained a blog during her ordeal. Titled “Bring It On: A Journey Through Breast Cancer, Dissertation and Life,” the blog ( proved to be a source of healing. Laced with humor and a multitude of inspirational quotes from well-known people, Kenney learned from her readers that she wasn’t alone.

 “Survival is more than just putting one foot in front of the other,” she wrote on Feb. 7, 2013. “It’s laughing when you trip over your own feet. Laughter and friendship make even the worst days possible to deal with.”

 Another entry — made exactly one year later — summarizes Kenney’s future plans.

 “To face adversity and survive is wonderful,” she wrote. “But to use this journey to help others I think is the next part of the journey.”

 Kenney says she is feeling stronger every day, and that she is taking spinning classes to build up her stamina.

 “On a scale of 1-to-10, I’d give myself a 7 in terms of my overall health,” she said.  “I’ll be on a maintenance drug for 10 years, but at least I have more control over my situation. Now I can turn this into something positive.

“I’m looking for my next challenge at this point, but I’ll take my time looking for the right fit. I’d like to be a manager of instructional design, or a director of learning technologies or educational technology and innovation. Something where I can help support and improve the student experience.”

   Writer: Stephen Kindland, UF College of Education, News & Communications, 352-273-4449,
   Media Relations: Larry Lansford, UF College of Education, News & Communications, 352-273-4449,