This mother's degree was born of determination

By Rick Vacek
GCU News Bureau

Online students often have to overcome obstacles to earn their degrees.

The responsibilities of work and parenthood.

Nikita Ford earned her degree while still tending to her three sons -- from left, Kai, 11; Chase, 3; and Carter, 1.

Simply having the time and energy to complete the coursework.

And, sometimes, they have to overcome failure.

Nikita Ford has known all those challenges, and yet she still would have been walking across the stage in Grand Canyon University Arena this week if the pandemic hadn’t forced Commencement to be postponed.

But Ford overcame far more while earning her master’s in Curriculum and Instruction from the College of Education.

She gave birth twice. Not once … twice.

She was laid off from her job.

Her father died … three days before Christmas.

Her husband’s father died.

She had to drop out of the master’s program and wait the required 15 months to return.

And yet, after she came back in January 2019, she rang up a 3.85 GPA and, by her memory, got all A’s for the first time in her life. No wonder her counselor, Michelle Keenan, called it the greatest turnaround she has seen in her 11 years at GCU.

To understand what changed, you need to go back to what happened in Ford’s first attempt to meet the program requirements.

She had just given birth to her son Chase, now 3. Her oldest son, Kai, is 11.

“When I got pregnant again, I had to start all over,” said Ford, the sounds of “Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!” echoing in the background as she talked by phone. “So much had changed in those eight years – the bottles were different, some of the regulations were different.

“And, of course, I had never been a mom of two, so I was just trying to get back in the swing of how to be a mom.”

Then all the job and family trauma struck. It was just too much.

Ford said her husband, Sean, helped her immensely when she had to do coursework.

“I was just like, ‘I just cannot do this right now,’” she said. “I don’t think the motivation was there. I knew what I had to do, but I felt like I needed to get everything in my personal life straight first before I could really dedicate the time to pursue my degree.”

You’d think that having a third son, Carter, would make her personal life that much more challenging, but she and her husband, Sean, devised a plan: When she was doing her coursework, he had to take the kids.

“Having the support of my husband was definitely very helpful,” she said.

Armed with the confidence that this time it would be different, Ford appealed to return to the program and resumed her studies in January 2019. That’s where Keenan, who had taken over as her counselor, became part of this grade-A success story.

“When I spoke to Michelle for the first time, naturally, she saw my history, she saw that I was on academic withdrawal, and then she asked me questions, like, ‘Are you prepared to come back? What are you going to do to make sure you come back? What is your plan?’” Ford said.

“She checked in with me at the start of every class, and she was always so sweet. After the first four classes, when she saw me consecutively getting A’s, she was like, ‘OK, Nikita, I see you rocking it out.’”

Keenan’s initial concern was not unfounded. She has talked with many a student who had an early stumble and tried again. It might not go well the second time, either.

What's next for Ford? Maybe a Ph.D.

“A lot of times when our students are dismissed and they come back, many of them still face challenges academically,” said Keenan, who has a personal connection to such students -- her son, Justin Hafner, started working on his MBA, took a five-year break and then got his degree later. “She shared with me what had gone on and that she had made some changes. It’s almost like, when she came back, a light switch had changed.”

The flip of the switch mainly involved being more proactive. Ford would put all of the discussion questions she had to answer into a Google Doc and write two papers on Sundays, if possible.

No wonder Keenan was so impressed.

“Nikita, I am so proud of you,” Ford remembers Keenan telling her. “I know you’re an adult and you don’t really need somebody to tell you that they’re proud of you, but I’m so proud of you. This is really the biggest comeback I’ve ever seen. For someone to graduate with a 3.85 GPA is really impressive, and you should be really proud of yourself.”

But that’s the thing: Online students need to hear that, too.

“Even though, yeah, I am an adult, it’s still great to hear someone say, ‘I’m proud of you. You did a great job,’” Ford said.

Ford now is a Student Support Coach at Strayer University in Herndon, Va. She’s considering the possibility of enrolling in the Ph.D program.

And, besides “Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!” echoing in her ears, she has Keenan’s praise to spur her on, too.

“For her to come back and, mind you, to have straight A’s, it WAS a success story,” Keenan said. “I told her this all along, and I meant it in my heart. To me, it was a great success. I think it’s a big deal. I really do.”

Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or [email protected].


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