Nicole Coffey, ’22, didn’t think anyone would want to hear her story, until she realized the power of her message — that she is a survivor, not a victim — and that she could help others recognize their own self-worth as well. Her journey, which includes personal injury, abuse and violence, a cancer diagnosis, and the ongoing struggles of PTSD, is enough to keep anyone down, but Coffey is adamant: “I am definitely a survivor.” And for those times she’s feeling doubtful, her service dog Monroe — a tiny tan Chihuahua — is by her side.
“Monroe can sense panic attacks,” says Coffey, who graduates from Southern this May with a sociology degree. “She will actually jump into my lap and compress my chest. Having her in my life has changed everything.”
Now age 32, Coffey’s struggles started long before 2020, when Monroe came into her life. She graduated from Gateway Community College in 2015 and took a five-year hiatus because of family illness, among other setbacks, like suffering a head injury at work, subsequent memory loss, vision issues, migraines, trouble retaining information, and ending an abusive relationship.
When a friend told Coffey she’d been sitting on her associate degree and talking about SCSU for a long time, she suggested Coffey get her degree.
“I was hesitant to apply to Southern because of my brain injury,” Coffey said. “But CASAS [The Center for Academic Success and Accessibility Services] and DRC [Disability Resource Center] helped me. Stephanie Hackett [associate director of Accessibility Services] helped me. I found that Southern has support systems in place. It’s just a matter of asking.”
Monroe came into the picture when a medical professional recommended Coffey get an Emotional Support Animal, or ESA. Because ESAs aren’t considered therapy dogs under the Americans with Disabilities Act, Coffey upgraded Monroe to a service dog so Monroe would have more rights and be allowed to go to places where animals are usually forbidden, like restaurants, stores, and libraries.
“After being online for three semesters, this is Monroe’s first semester on campus,” Coffey says. “This is her first time in this kind of environment. Everyone loves her. She walks the halls like she owns them. She has such a calming effect.”
Coffey credits Monroe with keeping her on a forward-facing path.
“Monroe gives me something to focus on,” she says.
Coffey initially was interested in English but decided on a sociology degree because it “helps people understand how the world works.”
“Sociology and social work go hand-in-hand, but social work intrigued me more and more,” she says. “I just knew I wanted to help other people. Dr. [Gregory] Adams is the reason I fell in love with sociology. He was my advisor for my internship at the Victim Advocacy Support Center, and he’s been along for the ride with me. At first I was hesitant to do an internship, but I realized I needed to get out of my comfort zone and work with survivors, like myself, to help me build the skills I need to help others. There were times I struggled with the pain of others. I’m highly empathic, I’m such a sensitive person, but I’m glad to be part of that team.”
“Nicole is an extremely dedicated student,” Adams says. “She is led by compassion, as well as a wish to make a difference in people’s lives. Even at the most trying times, Nicole never stopped engaging with her coursework. She is intellectually curious, and she prioritizes both learning and being of service to others. In her internship with VPAS, she took every opportunity to apply what she learned in social theory and research courses, and I’ve been told that students came to look to her as a knowledgeable and go-to representative.”
That her peers see her as someone to look up to means the world to Coffey.
“There’s a difference between a victim and a survivor,” she says. “I want to help others feel good and become survivors. I want them to know they’re not defined by their traumas and they should be proud of who they are. I didn’t think I would succeed at Southern. But I stayed for office hours and extra help and talked to my professors and it’s all really combined to make me successful and changed my attitude. I pushed hard for my A pluses. I did the extra credit. I paid my own way. Impossible is also I-am-possible. If you’d asked me five years I would have said there’s no way I can make it. But you can strive and thrive and keep going.”
Monroe will attend Southern’s commencement alongside Coffey — she will even wear a matching cap and gown, which Coffey ordered herself.
“I’m very proud to have Monroe walk with me,” she says. “She is my best friend. Without her I wouldn’t be as resilient as I’ve been. They say your biggest critic is yourself, but despite all my challenges I know I’m going to succeed. There’s a voice in my head that says, ‘Try’ now instead of ‘Change is scary.’”
Coffey is graduating with the Top Scholar Award, B.A. Sociology, given to a graduating senior in the B.A. Sociology Program with the highest GPA. She is a member of Alpha Kappa Delta, the national honor society for undergraduates in sociology, for which she exceeds the membership criteria. During her last two semesters at Southern, she maintained a 4.0 GPA.