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From Homeless to College Graduate: AIU Online Alumna Heather McKinney's Story

Image: Heather McKinney

No obstacle is too great and no lifestyle too difficult to prevent you from pursuing your degree. AIU Online associate degree alumna and current bachelor's student Heather McKinney is proof of that. Even when she was homeless and living out of her car with her three children and husband, she never gave up on her education.

"I had to go to school. In my family, I'm the first of four generations to go to college. Most of my family are alcoholics, drug addicts, criminals of all kinds. I didn't see that as a place I wanted to go with my life or my kids'. I had to set an example and break the cycle for them," Heather said.

She began by pursuing her Associate of Science in Criminal Justice degree. "I didn't have the confidence to go through with my bachelor's. The associate program was shorter, so I said, 'I'll try this, do my best, and I'm just going to see how I do.'"

Her biggest concern was algebra. "After I made it through algebra, everything else was just a cool breeze." Little did she know then that her world would soon turn over.

"In between algebra and the next class, my family traveled from Texas to West Virginia for a job offer for my husband." Unfortunately, the company didn't disclose all of the information beforehand—like the fact that they would only pay for a room for him, not for her and the children. It was then that they were faced with homelessness. At first, they stayed with a friend, but it didn't work out. "At that point, all we had was my car," Heather said. And for two months, that's where her family lived. "We kept bottles to keep tap water in, and we had gallons to bathe the children in."

Still, Heather never gave up on finishing her degree. "There is free Wi-Fi everywhere. Between a donut shop and a McDonald's, I turned in my homework. ... AIU made it that I could get on[line] at one in the morning while the kids were sleeping."

Although there were times when she entertained the notion of giving up, she refused to let that idea overcome her. "If you want it, you do it. I looked at my kids, being homeless, and I was going to take a leave of absence. I thought 'I can't do this all at once.' Then I thought, 'No. I'm going to do this. I'm going to pass.' I was in school to provide a better life for my family. If I quit, it would've defeated the whole purpose."

Heather proudly earned her associate degree in April 2014. "I had a strong sense of accomplishment—a sense that I did better. I was a teenage mom at 16. Everyone told me, 'Your life is over. You're not going to be successful.' They issued me a challenge. I rose to the challenge and I beat it. I'm almost 30, but I did it. Better late than never."

Heather decided to continue on and pursue her Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice with a specialization in Corrections & Case Management. "I wanted to go into my bachelor's degree right after graduating. I was scared I would get out of my routine."

But on June 13, her world tipped over again. Heather got into a car accident limiting the use of her right arm. The vehicle that her family at one point called home was totaled. While she now awaits surgery to repair some of her injuries, she isn't letting this accident postpone her bachelor's degree. "There's no excuse whatsoever to not finish. If I can go through what I've been through, there's no excuse—nothing you can't work around or sacrifice."

While the accident hasn't allowed her the opportunity to put her degree to work yet, Heather hopes to one day use her degrees to help children. "I have a passion for working with kids. One day I'd like to work with juveniles on probation or be an advocate for them."

Looking for more inspiration and motivation? Read more AIU success stories.

Career success will depend largely on the effort put into studies, job search efforts, experience and attitude. The experience of this alumnus is not representative of all students. This graduate story is unique and may not represent typical experiences or outcomes for our graduates.