CCC student Lena Cody achieves success against all odds

Date: Tuesday, 10th January 2023

Still standing, still smiling, CCC student Lena Cody defies all odds



FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - Small in stature, but big in strength, grit, determination and resilience, Lena Cody stands tall and proud in her graduation cap and gown.


Motivated by the prospect of a pay increase at her job as a case manager for a social service agency at the age of 51, Lena enrolled as a part time student at Coconino Community College in the fall of 2017. At the same time, she gained guardianship of her 3-year-old grandson, Princeton. Lena said she knew she had a lot on her plate – going to school, working full-time and raising a young child as a single woman – but she was determined to make it work.


In her 2018 essay for her English 101 class, “You Can Smile in the End,” she wrote about growing up poor in an overcrowded mobile home, enduring domestic violence, rape, and raising three boys on her own as a single parent. Hardened by life, she learned to not depend on anyone.


 “I felt like I was thrown to the wolves, and I needed to survive the hardships,” she said.


Surviving was never easy. Homelessness and poverty made raising three boys hard. She had always dreamed of her own home, and “not paying the rent on someone’s else’s mortgage” meant the world to her. One day, she said her prayers were answered because she was approved for homesite lease on a piece of red, rocky, juniper-spotted land out in Leupp, Arizona. For the first time in her life, she asked for help. She asked her community, her church, her chapter house and her extended family to help her with the building of her home. People came. With the help of her community and family, it took four long years to complete the construction.


“It was a true miracle that it was ever finished,” Lena said.


She added that she remembered moving into the home before it was finished and using a lantern for a night light, taking sponge baths and eating cold sandwiches. The accomplishment of building her own home gave Lena the encouragement that she could do anything she put her mind to doing. She was the architect for her life.


Fast forward to 2018: Lena was in her second year CCC, and she enrolled in the CCC TRIO Student Support Services program. Her TRIO advisors encouraged her to apply for the Live Your Dream Award, a Soroptimist Scholarship for single mothers. With the help of a Pell grant and the Live Your Dream Award, Lena was able to cover the costs of tuition and living expenses. Things were looking up, but that was all about to change with a series of tragic events.


Later that same year, her brother was involved in a serious car accident, and Lena had to finish the semester remotely from the hospital in Tucson where he was receiving his treatments. In 2019, her father passed away from cancer, and she had to work with her teachers to keep up with her coursework during this difficult time.


Then in spring 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Lena fell gravely ill with the virus and was flown down to a hospital in Phoenix. She was placed on oxygen to help with her breathing. Weak and tired, she managed to complete her math and American Sign Language classes from her hospital bed. Tragically, just a few weeks later in December of 2020, she would lose her other brother and then her elderly mother to COVID. Back-to-back funerals were arranged for January 2021.


Lena’s TRIO advisors encouraged her to take some time off to process the losses and grieve. She didn’t want to. School had become a safe place for her, a place for her to feel distracted from the emotional pain of the last couple of years. That summer in 2021, Lena decided to take an accelerated Anthropology class, hoping this would help her get ahead in her education.


In the final week of school, almost like clockwork, she received the worst news a mother could receive – her oldest son had suddenly and tragically passed away. It was an incomprehensible loss – a wound so deep, so dark, it would never fully heal. Completely in shock and grief stricken, she said it was the darkest of times.


“I would cry at home, at work, at school, the long commute from my home to school,” Lena said, “I would just cry the whole way.”


Despite the unimaginable grief and loss she was experiencing, Lena refused to give up. She pushed forward, and in the fall of 2022, she successfully graduated with her associate degree in Sociology, becoming the first in her family to achieve a college education.


“I did it,” she said. “I still made it!”


She credits the support of her instructors and TRIO advisors and tutors that helped her through those difficult times.


When asked where she plans to go from here, she said, “In all my life experiences, it took me so long to learn how to speak up for myself, but now I know, and I want to help others who are going through similar experiences.”


In her essay, “You Can Smile in the End,” she states: “To all the single female native parents who might feel helpless and alone, you can do anything you put your mind to. You too can be the architect for your life. Lean into the resources around you, and you never know who will be the angel that will assist you with your dreams. Just like me, you too can smile in the end.”


Lena said she hopes by presenting her employer with her newly achieved diploma, she will now receive that long-awaited pay increase. The thought of that put a big smile on her face.


TRIO Student Support Services is federally funded grant program through the Department of Education. To learn more about the TRIO Student Support Services program, visit 


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Jessica Laessig

Communication and Event Coordinator 



All Dates

  • Tuesday, 10th January 2023