Nordegren, 34, who rarely speaks publicly and gave her only interview to date to PEOPLE on the eve of her 2010 divorce from Tiger Woods, told her fellow Rollins College graduates at the Winter Park, Florida, commencement ceremony that she was surprised – and "a little scared" – when she got the call about the award and the commencement address that comes with it.
After all, she said, "I have been called a 'woman with no words' in the media and criticized for not talking very much."
Nordegren started college courses at Rollins in 2005, when she was married to Woods and did not yet have children, chipping away at her degree sometimes one class at a time. She took a semester off following the birth of each of her children – Sam, now 6, and Charlie, now 5 – and again in 2010, in the wake of the spectacular revelations of infidelity by her then-husband. That period she referred to Saturday as "the wild storm of my personal life."
With Charlie asleep in the audience, Nordegren said to applause: "Education has been the only consistent part of my life the last nine years. And it has offered me comfort. Education is one thing that no one can take away from you."
The Swedish-born American citizen said her fellow students helped her to keep going. "When you told me stories about your full-time day jobs, about coming home to cook dinner for your families, and about making sure your children were cared for while you were attending classes, you inspired me," she said. "Whatever obstacle I was facing at the time, your stories and sharing helped me put things in perspective."
A nanny and onetime model when she met Woods, Nordegren, for whom English is a second language, had a reputation in pro-golf circles for being quiet and reserved. She joked Saturday about how, right after she had taken a class called Communication and the Media, "I was unexpectedly thrust into the media limelight. I probably should have taken more notes in that class!"
In an exclusive interview for an upcoming issue of PEOPLE, Nordegren says that, whatever her initial trepidation, she ultimately embraced Saturday's speaking duties: "If I can inspire even one mom to go back and get her degree with the message that it's never too late, then I am happy."