A photo of Nikia Chaney speakingAny number of good excuses could have stopped Nikia Chaney from finishing her GED, earning her bachelor's and then two master's degrees.

The young single divorced mom worked as she juggled three children with one on the way while staying fully committed to her studies. Her journey through the layers of education and the energy to stick to the program all started with one simple question from a counselor – why not go back to school? “I said – to what? That was something I had not seen for myself. That was something that was so far away,” she said.  
Growing up in South Central Los Angeles, and later, housing projects in San Bernardino, poverty was like a breeding ground for hopelessness. It dulled the senses. By the fall of 2002, she had enrolled at San Bernardino Valley College and buckled down on her studies. The campus was bustling with activity, and her professors fostered her creativity.  

Chaney, now a humanities teacher at Cal State University, San Bernardino, feels that one of the best ways to reach kids today is to show them something outside of their daily experience. 
“Just take them out of the ghetto to a nice park or a library, that they can see other places exist,” she said. “That was Valley College to me. There was this other place that was so different, students were excited and energetic.”  

She had one advantage, she was used to a rigorous and diverse work schedule.  At one point, she was a housekeeper, and a security guard. She worked in fast foods, and a seamstress in a bridal boutique for a while. By the time she started college, she understood the concept of hard work. “School was easy compared to all that,” she said. “You're learning and sitting in classrooms, and you get to talk about ideas. I loved it."  

Perhaps her greatest motivation was to make sure that her own children could have access to, and imagine, the good life. When she was young, there were no college goers in her inner circle. Some family members were blue collar workers, and having a job seemed more important than education.  

“We were very poor, there is a sense a shame, not having the proper clothes to wear, or not having enough to eat, those are the realities of my childhood,” she said.

Chaney graduated with honors from SBVC in 2004, and had received scholarships to UC Riverside, UC Berkeley, and UCLA, where she attended, and later transferred to Cal State University San Bernardino. In 2009, she graduated from CSUSB with a bachelor’s degree in English and creative writing. While working as a social worker, she went on to earn her master’s degree in fine arts from Antioch University in Los Angeles and returned to CSUSB to earn her second master's in English as a Second Language, finishing up her studies in 2012. 

Achieving lifetime goals of higher education comes not without a struggle, but she said students that find a way to live, go to work, and deal with everyday life will gain something that can never be taken away. 

Chaney is the fourth Inlandia Literary Laureate, a two-year position bestowed on her for community volunteerism, writing and literacy programs, and author of "us mouth."The nonprofit Inlandia seeks to broaden creative awareness by sponsoring various literary events, including reading programs, boot camps for writers, publishing books, and workshops throughout the Inland Empire. 

During her term, she has kept the momentum going through a variety of programs, including a grant award from the nonprofit California Humanities to address Voices Against Violence in the community. As she continues outreach at computer centers, tutoring, workshops, and work with local youth, she always shares the greater message that education paves the way to a better life.  

“I tell my students, higher education is the only guaranteed way to give yourself opportunities that you might have never had,” she said. “This is the best thing we can do for ourselves.”