After graduating from the United States Air Force Academy with a bachelor’s degree in business and management, Noel Niccum was eager to continue her education. She wanted to earn a master’s degree, but she needed something flexible to accommodate her military lifestyle.
When a friend told her about OU Extended Campus, she did some research and found the Master of Human Relations program.
“I’ve always wanted to be an inspiration to others and felt the human relations program would help me grow into a better leader. I needed to be able to relate to all groups of individuals in order to best help and motivate them,” said Niccum. “After reviewing the program online, I knew this was where I needed to be.”
“Your perspective and mindset determine whether you succeed or not. I want to help people realize that with fitness or any challenge in life, you have to start with the appropriate internal foundation.”
Niccum, 25, was prepared to get a high-quality education at OU, but she didn’t expect the 360-degree change in perspective that came with it.
Growing up in the small town of Magnolia, Texas, Niccum didn’t have much exposure to other cultures or social justice issues. That all changed at Extended Campus.
“I was very stuck in my ways and saw life only through the lens of a successful white female,” she said. “I remember fighting in my first class that I wasn’t at all privileged, and it was my hard work that fueled my accomplishments. My own personal biases and, honestly, racist-like perceptions were brought to light.”
During her second year in the human relations program, Niccum began questioning her beliefs about racism and privilege. After taking several courses and hearing a TED Talk by Michael Kimmel on equality, Niccum became willing to look at herself honestly. She realized the foundation of human relations is knowing we’re all human and that we all deserve to be treated with tolerance and respect.
“Kimmel says, ‘Privilege is invisible to those who have it.’ This simple sentence carries an extreme amount of weight and changed my perspective of what it truly meant to be a white privileged female,” she said.
As Niccum began to see the world differently, she embraced her master’s program as something that could help bolster the skills she’d need to become an effective leader. Knowing her desire to help others, she chose classes that focused on counseling and leadership. She was able to use the knowledge from her courses to complete a successful internship as a Master Resilience Trainer in the Air Force’s Comprehensive Airmen Fitness program, which was created to help airmen handle the responsibilities and demanding environment associated with serving in the military.
“As a Master Resilience Trainer, I instructed many different courses and classes that teach airmen how to live more resilient lives. Later, I found out how much I needed these skills, too,” she said. “Your perspective and mindset determine whether you succeed or not. I want to help people realize that with fitness or any challenge in life, you have to start with the appropriate internal foundation.”
A competitive swimmer while at USAFA, that kind of positive outlook was something Niccum had to discover herself through her own personal failures.
“I fought with myself because it wasn’t that I didn’t put in the hard work or wasn’t dedicated enough, but my failures came from within,” she said. “I had already lost the race before even getting up to the starting blocks. I lacked confidence, was surrounded by fear and doubt and was mentally defeated before giving myself a chance at victory. I understand now that all the hardships I’ve endured, and continue to endure, have molded me into a better instrument to help others who battle similar things.”
Niccum will graduate this summer and is using what she learned at Extended Campus, along with her research and internship experience, as a framework for a fitness program that will help individuals build resilience through faith.
Her program will focus on balance through physical fitness, sleep and healthy habits. In the meantime, she shares workouts and nutrition information on her Instagram fitness account, dumbbell_noel. She also plans to start an after-school fitness program for youth in Dayton, Ohio, where she was recently stationed.
“A big push of mine is to display my workouts and knowledge of nutrition, along with encouragement, on Instagram and eventually Youtube,” she said. “The dream God has placed on my heart is to travel the world providing testimonies and inspirational speeches on life, stress, a winner’s mindset, faith and my knowledge of nutrition and exercise.”
Niccum said in addition to opening the door to her future career, the OU Extended Campus Human Relations program truly allowed for an internal transformation that recreated her life.
“Had I remained in my original mindset, I wouldn’t have been able to experience God’s most precious gift to me,” Niccum said. “I want to be a sounding board for other individuals, including my family, who shared a similar narrow mindset.”
Photography provided by Nichole DuPont, who owns full creative rights for the photos used in this story.