Graduate Cindy Winkler: How one student’s impossible dream came true, four decades later

Winkler poses in her National Park Service employee uniform

By Carly Banks
NAU Communications

Meet Cynthia (Cindy) Brewer-Loos Winkler.

Degree: Liberal Arts
Campus: Personalized Learning Online

Cindy Winkler is many things—mother, divorcee, National Park Service employee, grandmother, widow—and at the age of 71, she can finally add “college graduate” to her growing list.

On Dec. 15, she will walk across the graduation stage after completing her bachelor’s degree in liberal arts. It’s an extra special accomplishment that has been 43 years in the making.

Winkler made several efforts to earn a degree between 1974 and 2012, but something always seemed to get in the way. Supporting her family took priority over studying and attending classes, so her schooling was put on the back burner. To her, earning a degree was an impossible dream.

After her three children had grown and her husband had died, she figured it was as good a time as any to continue working toward her degree. She looked into different options and discovered Northern Arizona University’s Personalized Learning program.

“She was completely new to online learning when she began with us but caught up with the digital learning curve quickly and really thrived in the program,” said Jayme Davis, liberal arts professor and Winkler’s faculty mentor. “Her academic accomplishment is even more impressive considering she can only sit and type in 15- to 20-minute increments because of severe, painful arthritis.”

But the learning curve, her health, a cross-country move and starting a family business didn’t stop Winkler from excelling.

Cindy Winkler poses with her three children
Winkler poses with her three children.

“She is one of the most diligent and dedicated students I’ve had,” Davis said. “I’ve never had a student quite so enthusiastic about her schoolwork—she really relishes the world of ideas, and I would sometimes have to intervene and remind her not to work so hard.”

One of her school assignments required she read “Don Quixote”—the story of an elderly knight who, bemused by reading romances, sets out to seek adventure. His story resonated with Winkler, probably because it reminded her of her own journey.

“Graduating means more than reaching a long-sought goal, it means I accomplished more than I thought I was capable of,” Winkler said. “At times, I shed tears of frustration and doubt, at others I cried happy tears with each lesson I completed. I was afraid, inspired, encouraged, confident and constantly challenged. Like Don Quixote, this journey has been my impossible dream.”

NAU’s Personalized Learning program sparked Winkers passion for learning, and she plans to continue her education after graduation. She wants to apply to Teach for America and hopes to earn a scholarship with the Mayan Research program in Belize.

“I wanted to graduate from a great school, and I did. The journey continues!”

NAU Communications