Cheyenne Nicholson with her son, Caleb.
Cheyenne Nicholson with her son, Caleb. Nicholson's graduation from VCU this month is a moment 10 years in the making. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

Class of 2019: Cheyenne Nicholson’s winding path to graduation

10 years after starting her undergraduate studies, Nicholson’s journey to a bachelor’s degree is a personal achievement — and a point of pride.

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Cheyenne Nicholson wants to modify people’s perceptions about mathematics to be greater than letters and numbers and more about critical thinking.

“I want them to see that [mathematics] actually sharpens their brain's ability to solve problems, which can be applied in all areas of life,” said Nicholson, who will graduate from Virginia Commonwealth University's College of Humanities and Sciences this month with a bachelor’s of mathematical sciences. “I think that people are very predictable and that leads to why we live in such a data-driven society. If you can understand the data that you accumulate, then you can predict what's going to happen.” 

Nicholson, a nontraditional student, business owner and self-described soccer mom, even uses a mathematician’s approach to the way she parents her son, Caleb, who is almost 8, to think through solutions to problems. Nicholson thinks using math in everyday life can lead to an ability to understand logic and reasoning.

Her path to a college degree was a winding one. Twists and bumps prolonged and delayed Nicholson’s undergraduate studies. She enrolled at multiple community colleges and universities in Virginia and her hometown of Philadelphia over a 10-year period, balancing parenting and full-time work. After Caleb was born, she transferred from Temple University to a local community college. Later, when she moved to Virginia, she applied to VCU but was not accepted. She instead enrolled at Reynolds Community College, where she earned an associate degree in mathematics.

In 2018, as she was completing her degree at Reynolds, she again applied to VCU, and again was not accepted.

“It was because of my low GPA from the other schools,” Nicholson said.

Undeterred, she requested a second review of her application and provided updated documents from her final semester at Reynolds. After that second review, Nicholson got in — “that was God,” she said.

Nicholson enrolled at VCU in fall 2018. She eventually left her job as a caseworker with Henrico County Social Services to focus full time on her studies. She earned money working as an Uber and Lyft driver, mystery shopper and resume writer. She also launched a small business, Tina’s Cousin, which provides professional and education writing services, helping students find and apply for scholarships, grants and jobs. She describes her VCU academic experience as rewarding, rigorous and invigorating, and said it was exciting to be in an academically demanding environment.

“It was a very hard curriculum, especially when I'm coming from a lot of other institutions. A lot of my lower-level classes were taught differently,” Nicholson said. “In 400-level courses, professors are expecting you to know certain things based off of the standards from teachers in the lower-level courses.”

Having studied differential equations nine years earlier posed a challenge to remember content but Nicholson describes her professors and classmates in the mathematics department as a strong support system that helped her get up to speed. A highlight of her VCU experience was attending the invitation only Field of Dreams Conference in St. Louis put on by the National Alliance for Doctoral Studies in the Mathematical Sciences. She felt validated when she received high marks in a combinatorics class focusing on patterns and sequences taught by Glenn Hurlbert, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics. And one of the most memorable moments of her time at VCU was when Caleb was out of school recovering from a cold and Nicholson faced a dilemma of missing class to stay with him. The professor said she could bring Caleb to class.

“The other students gave him snacks and allowed him to play on their tablets,” Nicholson said.

Nicholson, 28, has an eye on the actuary field after graduation, as well as graduate school (she has aspirations to teach). She is currently writing a math curriculum for elementary school students to make the subject more understandable. She has presented at college and employment application workshops for low-income teens and young adults, and said she plans to continue this work. 

Her hard-fought journey toward a bachelor’s degree is not only a personal achievement but a point of pride. 

"I am excited for my diploma and regalia to be framed and hung in my mother’s dining room alongside my siblings’,” Nicholson said. “There is an empty space reserved for me because my mother always knew that one day I would finish."