By Stephanie Tomlinson
Things haven’t always gone as Cassie Hinnenkamp planned. She never planned to start a family when she was halfway through college the first time. She never planned that the choice of which house to buy would eventually lead to her calling and future career. And she never planned to have her salary cut significantly because of COVID-19 halfway through her first semester after returning to finish her degree.
But it was a soul-seeking assignment in her Cornerstone class, which asked Cassie to reflect on what had brought her to this point in her life, where she began to see how all of those “unplanned” moments—and many others—had been pivotal experiences that were intricately woven together to bring her to exactly where she needed to be.
Last January, Cassie was finally able to continue her dream of earning a college degree. During her first attempt right out of high school, her plans took a bit of a detour when she became pregnant shortly after her sophomore year. Although not at all what the then-20-year-old had planned, looking back she can see how the amazing journey and lessons she learned along the way have played such an integral role in making her who she is and preparing her for her current challenges.
“Things haven’t always been easy … But hard is a reality in life. As I’ve learned from Code Red founder Cristy Nickel, we just need to choose our hard … Do you do the ‘hard’ of not being able to continue advancing in your career because you’ve reached as high as you can without a college degree or do you do the ‘hard’ of going back to school while managing a family and doing a job?” Cassie asked.
Cassie is currently balancing her life as a wife of 20 years to her supportive husband, a mom to three great kids—a son who is a sophomore at NNU and two daughters, one who is a junior in high school and one an eighth-grader—a full-time employee working as an educational aide (EA) for a special needs student and a student herself in her second semester in the adult professional studies accelerated teaching certificate program working toward her elementary education degree.
Whether making friends with a special needs student in middle school, peer mentoring in high school or pursuing a degree to be a sign language interpreter during her first go-round at college, Cassie has always had a heart for children and teaching. Shortly after her son and daughters were school-aged, a close connection with a neighbor led her to volunteering at the local elementary school. There she found a natural gift and love for being in the classroom. One unplanned opportunity led to another and another, leading her down the path of becoming an elementary EA to serving as an elementary computer teacher to her current role. Although promoted through the ranks quickly and continually encouraged by administrators and classroom teachers to finish her degree, Cassie never thought she had the time to go back. After a particularly memorable conversation with her administrator, Cassie knew it was time to figure out how to make it happen.
“On the first day in my current role, my administrator came to me and asked ‘So when do you start your program to get your certification?’ She then went on to offer high praise and encouragement for what she saw in my potential. It was right then that I chose the ‘hard’ of going back to school.”
Cassie came home and started looking into programs. Although the cost was definitely a concern, NNU quickly rose to the top of her list.
“In my current role, I’m so blessed to be able to be in multiple classrooms and work with many different amazing teachers,” Hinnenkamp said. “As I started doing some research I found one thing that several of the teachers I admired had in common: they had all graduated from NNU.”
That decision has been reinforced time and time again.
“When my son started to look for a university, he was recruited by NNU to be part of their track team. When we came to visit, being on campus felt comfortable and right. Although I’m not Nazarene and not an active church member, I felt like this could be a safe place for my son to explore and to learn more—without judgment.” Cassie said. “Then when it came time for me to start looking for a school, I called to inquire about the program and I immediately connected with Lindsay, my admission counselor. While I don’t remember our exact conversation, I remember how I felt. I felt heard. She was genuinely interested in me and wanted to help me achieve my goals.”
This is something that Cassie has continued to find during her short time at NNU. She remembers feeling like she was in way over her head in her Intro to Biblical Studies class only to have her professor quickly respond to her concerns and reassure her she was right where she needed to be and was in a better position than she thought, giving her the confidence to keep going.
“Returning to school after being away for over 20 years has definitely been a challenge,” Cassie said. “But I wanted—needed—to remember the struggle and see the difference a teacher can make when they believe in their students—even before the students believe in themselves. This will help me be ready to do the same for my students when that time comes.”
COVID-19 hit this spring as Cassie was in the midst of her first semester of classes. In retrospect, she can see the blessings that came from the chaos and difficulties—despite the loss in income. While she was incredibly grateful for the opportunity to continue serving students given the situation, there was a noticeable reduction in her hours, and therefore, her paycheck.
“Although it meant added stress about how I was going to pay for the program, it gave me the time and space to really lean into my studies and remember what it meant to be a student,” Cassie said. “It also forced me to live up to what I tell my kids about accepting nothing less than what they are capable of because with all of us in the same house, I knew they were watching. I could show them the value of education and acknowledge that sometimes it is hard, but it’s always worth it!”
As the semester wrapped up and the reality of tighter finances set in, Cassie came to the realization that she was going to have to take a break from her program. Devastated, she called her program director, Julie Howard, to break the news. In the call, it was reinforced again why NNU has been perfect for Cassie.
“Julie wouldn’t let me quit. She asked some questions, listened to my concerns and then provided a variety of options that would allow me to stay on track with the program within the confines of our financial constraints,” Cassie said. “Again, it was the personal touch and the way she cared for me and my situation that reminded me why I am here.”
One of the ways Howard helped Cassie bridge the gap was through a scholarship funded by the Nighthawks Scholarship fund. This fund was provided by donors specifically to help support students like Cassie who otherwise would not have been able to return to NNU because of financial hardships caused by COVID-19.
The impact of this scholarship wasn’t lost on her. “Without them, I wouldn’t be back here this fall. I want to thank those who don’t even know me for being willing to support me and invest in not only my future but our community’s future as well,” Cassie said. “When things get hard—as I know they will—I will remember the sacrifices, investment and all of those who have had faith in me, and I will push through until I have my teaching certificate in hand and am able to speak life and confidence into future students as they have for me.”
Cassie is scheduled to graduate in December 2022 and looks forward to helping future students realize that sometimes those unplanned things in life are exactly what is needed on the pathway to their futures—and they all have the capabilities to face the hard things along the way.