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Harker Heights Evening Star
Harker Heights Evening Star

From Homeless to Higher Education: Following inspiration, becoming Middle School Teacher

Special to the HHES

Killeen – Bianca Nickleberry is not a woman unfamiliar with challenging circumstances. She has known hunger and homelessness, heartbreak and health crisis, mean streets and miracles.

“My father kicked us out, my mother and I, when I was only 5 years old,” she explained. “There wasn’t a word for ‘homelessness’ back then, but that’s what we were.”

Courtesy Photo
Bianca Nickleberry. is an alum, recently graduated with her MA in Education, product of KISD. Nickleberry has gone from homelessness to an MA in Education, inspired by a local English teacher at KISD.

Bianca moved from place to place with such reoccurring frequency that somewhere between kindergarten and second grade, she literally lost count of all the places they lived.

Sometimes a shelter, sometimes a friend’s sofa, sometimes their car, they lived as they were able, wherever they were able, cleaning up and changing clothes every day in gas station bathrooms, hoping to avoid separation.

While her mother looked for work, Bianca went to school and did homework. And then worried about how to get it done. A nuisance to most students, homework was a challenge. But not for the typical reasons.

“If we were staying in the car, I either finished my homework at school or we had to find a place to be where there was light,” she explained, her voice revealing no trace of the bitterness which is often the result of relentless hardship. “I didn’t want to make it worse than it already was.”

But her trials and tribulations are not what make her remarkable. What makes Bianca unique is that she refused to let the hardships define her.

In her junior year of high school, Nickleberry was determined to change her fate, playing basketball and running track in the hopes of a college scholarship. Her mother had found a good job, moving their family into a home in Plano, Texas.

One day, as she competed among the other runners in the 200 meter at a district meet, her heart stopped. Two weeks later, she awoke from a coma in a Plano hospital, disoriented and paralyzed from the waist down.

The granddaughter of a Vietnam veteran and US Army, Bianca rehabilitated with family in Killeen with the kind of discipline found in abject determination.

By the end of her senior year, and a grueling year of physical therapy, she was walking again, graduating KISD from with 21 scholarships: one of them from the local Boys and Girls Club.

Motivated by the knowledge that she was worthy of investment, Bianca could not be slowed down, beginning at Central Texas College, and taking up to eight classes at a time.

Once at A&M-Central Texas, she entered the teaching program, became active in student government, and was selected serve as the university representative of the Chancellor’s Student Advisory Council.

Graduating with honors in 2015, she began her teaching career at Palo Alto Middle School in Killeen and, without missing a beat, applied for admission to the A&M-Central Texas graduate program in education. She crossed the stage last month, the first woman in her family to earn a master’s degree.

But even as she celebrates the milestone of degrees and a blossoming career that will take her to Polk Middle School and Carrollton-Farmers Branch ISD, Nickleberry prefers to reflect upon those who made an impact on her future.

And, in this case, she didn’t need to look far: Paul Finnen, KISD English teacher, had been in her corner for years, teaching and inspiring her to reach higher.

“He taught me that my past is not what defines me. He taught me how to believe in myself, and he believed in me when others didn’t. I want to be that teacher for students. I want my students to know that they can accomplish anything – even if someone else told them it wasn’t possible.”

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