Sometimes the path of life takes a sharp left turn off course, said Pam Kiger, a soon-to-be Coconino Community College graduate with an associate degree in sociology.
“It’s never too late, and you don’t have to give up. You don’t have to give in to things; you can keep moving. It doesn’t matter how old you are, the sex you are, the race you are – you just keep moving,” she said.
Until after she relocated to Flagstaff six years ago and met a CCC faculty member, Kiger, a first-generation college student, said she did not consider working toward a college degree.
“I got married at 18 and I just wanted to be a mom and wife. School wasn’t even on my radar because that was all I really wanted to be," Kiger said. "And then life changes, things happen, there are left turns. You just have to take them as they come and not let it crush you completely.”
This mother of three and grandmother of six faced her biggest “left turn” in 2005, when she was diagnosed with lupus.
“It was so confusing and so scary. I was so busy; I was constantly doing stuff. I had three busy kids and was running a business, but everything came to a screeching halt,” she said.
Lupus is an invisible illness that fills the body with unceasing pain and fatigue. Kiger said she can no longer be out in the sun and gets “brain fog” that makes reading textbooks difficult.
The disease almost took her life in 2010, when open wounds in her arm refused to heal.
“It’s like doing everything with one arm tied behind your back,” she said. “It’s an awful disease. There’s no cure, they can just treat symptoms. I feel like I am holding hands with pain. It walks with me all the time.”
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Although she knew college would be difficult, especially with her disability, in late 2015 she enrolled in just two night classes. When she found that she was not only able to manage them, but also enjoy them, she gradually added more and more classes to her schedule.
CCC’s commencement ceremony will be the first time Kiger gets to wear a cap and gown; she did not graduate from high school, but received her GED later. At the ceremony Friday, she will also be adorned with golden cords for her high GPA and a golden stole for her time in Phi Theta Kappa, an international honor society for two-year colleges.
Following her diagnosis, Kiger feared that lupus would define her life. Years later, it has, but in a positive way.
Her goal is to use her experiences to help others with chronic illnesses by sharing the lessons she learned and being available to listen, using a bachelor’s degree in social work from Northern Arizona University.
Kiger will start summer courses at NAU next week to work toward this goal.
“You wrestle and fight with the change and then you have to learn to love and embrace that change. Once I made friends with [the pain], it doesn’t yell at me anymore. It's just constantly there. It’s holding onto me, but it doesn’t always scream,” she said.
Though Kiger said she is looking forward to “getting into the meat” of what she wants to do, she is sad to leave behind the community she has developed at CCC, where she said she feels like she knows everyone and fits in with both the 18-year-olds and the students older than her.
“I feel very much at home here. It’s small enough, but it’s big enough. “It helped me to heal, but has also driven me to do something I never thought I would do.” she said. “I’ve been to a lot of graduations – my children’s and other people’s – and now it’s my turn.”