Nicole “Kokoa” Kinley’s lifelong dream has always been to do work that will benefit and make a difference in her tribe, the Lummi Nation. To accomplish that, she knew she needed a college education. As a single mother of five, she faced both monetary and time restraints that seemed to make higher education unattainable.

One of the women in her family who supported Kinley came to her rescue. An ex-stepmom, through her job, found a way to get Kinley’s education paid for as long as she only took one class per quarter. So Kinley began her educational journey to gain a Master of Arts in leadership at City University of Seattle in 2018.

“Sometimes the courses offered three credits, and other times I received six credits, but on top of my regular life, it felt like a lot,” says Kinley, who also worked full time then. Kinley spent this same time in recovery from an addiction to opioid painkillers.

Kinley faced more than her share of challenges, but her resilience kept her going. Another student might only have one or two obstacles to attaining a degree and give up before enrolling. Affordability can definitely be a deal-breaker. The average tuition, without any financial help or student loans, for 2021-2022 for a public in-state college is $10,338 according to U.S. News.

Native American students often don’t have family members who have attended college so they can’t rely on other generations to help them navigate their coursework and everything else associated with attending a college or university. But all higher educational institutions do have academic advisers to help their students.

An academic adviser’s job description includes helping students formulate and attain their goals, recognize their strengths and determine solutions for at-risk students.

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Carly Nicefaro works as an academic adviser at CityU and began working with Kinley after she was suspended from school in February 2020.

“She had some unfortunate extenuating circumstances that led to her grades dropping and ultimately being suspended academically,” says Nicefaro. “I never place judgment on low grades because you never know what’s happening in a student’s life at that time.”

In Kinley’s case, she was facing a tumultuous legal battle. In December of 2018, her world came crashing down when she was accused (unjustly) of burning one of her daughters with a cigarette.

“I was arrested, put on administrative leave without pay from my job and my three youngest children were taken from my home,” says Kinley. “Needless to say, I stopped participating in the class I was taking.”

Eventually, on February 14, 2019, Kinley was cleared of any wrongdoing, yet the Lummi Nation Prosecutor continued to charge her with child abuse and neglect. She took the only job offered and started working at a cold storage facility processing fish. In May of 2019, Kinley’s nightmare came to an end – she was given her previous job back and all her children were returned home.

As soon as she could, Kinley asked to be readmitted to the MAL program at CityU and started classes again. She’ll graduate this spring.

That process started with a 90-minute phone call during which Nicefaro walked Kinley through the provisional readmissions process. Kinley had to write a letter to the registrar explaining her circumstances, why she wanted to return to classes and how she planned to be successful moving forward. Because the MAL program had been phased out, Kinley was re-enrolled in the Master of Science in Management and Leadership program and all her previously completed courses transferred so she didn’t lose any credits.

“She’s brought her GPA beyond good academic standing and has even made the dean’s list,” says Nicefaro. “I’m so proud of everything she has accomplished.”

One thing Kinley is especially thankful for is that her father can see these accomplishments. “I was raised by a single father and he is and always has been [my person] who loves me unconditionally … The one picture that I want to take is of [him] and me with my cap and gown on,” she says.

Kinley and Nicefaro frequently communicate via email these days. Kinley’s instructors also offered her support, encouragement and accommodations when needed because her journey has been bumpy. “I want to show my kids that anything is possible if you put your mind to it,” says Kinley. Her children are showing they’ve taken that message to heart, starting with Mia, 23. Following in her mother’s footsteps Mia is attending Northwest Indian College full time and plans to transfer to Western Washington University after she receives her associate of applied science degree.

City University of Seattle is a private nonprofit university accredited through the doctoral level. It has been ranked by U.S. News & World Report among the Top 50 in the country for its online bachelor’s degree programs for eight consecutive years.