After starting their family, Nicole and Devin Keirsey went back to school to improve their situation and show their sons what they could achieve with hard work.
When the media declares a new Hollywood "power couple," it's usually A-listers such as Jennifer Lopez and Alexander Rodriguez or Beyoncé and Jay Z. But students at Texas Tech University deemed graduate students Nicole and Devin Keirsey as the university's own power couple.
The Keirseys are both set to graduate Saturday (May 23). Devin will receive his master's degree in social work with a general practitioner focus through the College of Arts & Sciences. Nicole will receive her master's degree in public administration from Texas Tech's College of Arts & Sciences and her master's degree in public health through the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center (TTUHSC).
They achieved all this while working and raising their two young sons, Daniel, age 10, and Liam, age 6.
First attempt at college
Like many students beginning college for the first time, Nicole and Devin found their initial entrance different than they anticipated.
"We both dropped out of college," said Devin, a Little Rock, Arkansas, native. "My first time in college in Little Rock, my GPA was like a 0.9."
"I initially spent two years at South Plains College but only had a year's worth of credit," Nicole said, "so I just stopped going to college."
While dropping out of college wasn't what either had planned, it may have been fortuitous. After attempting college in Little Rock, Devin moved to Lubbock where he landed a job at a call center – the same call center where Nicole happened to be working.
"I still joke that she made the first call out – the first move," Devin said. "I had to boost my confidence."
The pair hit it off immediately. Devin embraced Nicole's then-1-year-old son, Daniel, as his own. Four years later, the couple welcomed their son Liam. With their family growing, Nicole decided it was time for both she and Devin to go back to college.
"About six years ago, I got online and filled out Devin's application, completed his Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and told him, 'Hey, you're going to back to school,'" Nicole said. "He had a few doubts, but I said, 'No, we're going to do it. We can both do it. This is going to help us.'
"Sometimes, when you don't have a college degree, you're not making as much money as you could, and we weren't doing as well as we wanted. We just decided that, if our kids were going to see any kind of struggle, we wanted it to be for our advancement."
Their decision impacted their kids. Daniel, who was 4 years old when Nicole and Devin went back to school, began to imitate his parents.
"I didn't know when I was Daniel's age that you have to go to college to get the kind of job you want," Nicole said. "He wants to be a doctor when he grows up, and he knows he's going to have to go to college for that. When we decided to go back to college, and when Daniel was going to daycare, he used to carry around this toy laptop and he'd say, 'OK, I'm going to college.' It was good for him."
As for Devin, he was grateful Nicole made the decision.
"I literally had to do nothing," he said. "She told me when orientation was; I went to orientation; she enrolled in my classes. She knew me, so she knew what my aspirations were.
"I was still in an old mindset that, I'm the male. I need to provide for my family. But, providing for them at $9.50, or whatever it was an hour, just wasn't going to cut it. She was right. If we were going to live like that, then I wanted to at least say that we attempted to make ourselves better."
Juggling work, school and family
To lessen the expense of both Nicole and Devin going back to school simultaneously, they decided to get their basics at South Plains College then transfer to Texas Tech to complete their undergraduate degrees and, eventually, their graduate degrees.
Devin said one word aptly explains what it was like juggling work, school and family during this time.
"Rough," he said. "That's the perfect word for it. We had little sleep and were always tired. We also felt guilty for not being able to spend time with our kids, even though we knew we were doing it for them. When we were in school, and we'd have to pay attention to projects, we felt guilty that we couldn't work with them on their schoolwork more than we could. We just had to keep our minds on the goal and remember this was temporary."
Nicole said the encouragement from her classmates, who dubbed her and Devin a Texas Tech power couple, made her realize the sacrifices she made were worth it.
"What kept me going is just the fact we always had younger people in our classes telling us, 'You guys are doing awesome. How do you do it?'" Nicole said. "Some would even say, 'I feel like if y'all can do it, then I can do it, too.' We never minded them saying that because we knew they meant it in a good way.
"I think just knowing that, even if we only kept one student from dropping out of college, it was worth it. Because I wouldn't wish that on anybody to be out of college for five years and then try to get back into it. It was rough for us, and I was glad we inspired people."
An unexpected challenge
In January 2018, Nicole and Devin's youngest son, Liam, was diagnosed with autism. Not long afterward, doctors spotted a tumor in Liam's brain.
"Liam has neurofibromatosis – a genetic disorder that causes tumors to form on nerve tissue – so he has to get yearly MRIs," Devin said. "While I was working during Nicole's first semester of her master's program, they found a tumor on Liam's cerebellum, which is still there, but it's not growing.
"That really crippled me for about two to three weeks. I was still able to function, go to school and do my 'act normal' fakeness for everybody for a little bit, as much as I needed to, but that was definitely the hardest. That's the thing about being a parent: when they're in pain and there's nothing you can do, you feel totally helpless in that situation, and that just wasn't good for what we were doing."
On the bright side, Liam is doing well. He currently completes occupational, speech and equine therapy at Refuge Services.
"He gets to ride the horses in different positions, and they play 'I spy,'" Devin said. "It teaches him to converse, multitask and keep his balance while doing so. It's amazing. I really recommend it for anybody with any kind of self-efficacy type of issue."
Choosing their master's programs
Though Nicole is receiving two master's degrees, one from Texas Tech and one from TTUHSC, the public administration and the public health programs complement each other.
"I wanted to make a difference as far as what services and options are available to people because I was initially wanted to go to school for therapy," Nicole said. "And then I realized that it's really hard as a therapist even to be able to make things possible for people because the choices are in the hands of the decision makers, which are the administrators. Since then, I decided that I want to either be a physician recruiter or a health program administrator.
"As a health program administrator, I would be putting together health programs for companies or organizations. It would be my job to make the company healthier and educate people on how to live longer lives and be healthy."
Devin initially wanted to go to school for couple, marriage and family therapy but changed courses when he learned more about the social work program.
"I looked into social work and I realized that, after 2,000 hours of supervisory therapy, I could get my clinical license as a social worker," Devin said. "Social workers can do a lot of stuff, and some schools choose to specialize in one thing and then some choose to kind of give you a Swiss Army Knife approach to it. They give you a little bit of knowledge about everything, which I guess is the best way to describe the general practitioner label we have. It just means I've been trained in social referral and the medical portion. I can pretty much do anything, is what it's saying."
With his degree, Devin hopes to find a job where he can work with individuals with disabilities.
Graduating with honors
After what Devin calls an absurd GPA during his first go-round at college, he made it his mission to graduate with honors.
"My undergraduate GPA was a 3.92 and my master's GPA is a 4.0," he said. "I realized I needed to stop messing around, and now I'm graduating Summa Cum Laude."
Nicole, who tackled two different master's programs, also will graduate with honors.
"I'm graduating Cum Laude for my public administration degree and Magna Cum Laude for my public health degree," she said.
The couple, though understanding the reason why, is disappointed about the cancellation of in-person commencement, mainly because their kids won't get to witness them walk, Nicole said.
"But, on the bright side, I get to see some of the people, especially the ones we inspired them along the way, also graduate, so I get to share that happiness with them at least," she said.
'Texas Tech changed my life'
With their time at Texas Tech ending, Nicole and Devin both reflected on how being Red Raiders impacted them.
"Texas Tech, and also the Health Sciences Center, really makes me appreciate and understand the phrases, Texas Tech's 'From here, it's possible' and the Health Sciences Center's 'Your life, our purpose,'" Nicole said. "This really helped me appreciate those phrases and understand what those phrases truly mean."
Devin said one of the things he appreciated was how understanding his instructors were, especially when Liam was being bullied at daycare and Devin had to miss several classes.
"Texas Tech changed my life," Devin said. "The professors in the social work program, how understanding they were with Liam's diagnosis and everything that was going on. They were awesome and did anything for me that I needed."