June 02, 2014 12:00 PM

In a Lego-littered family room, Elin Nordegren stands at an ironing board, pretending it’s a lectern. While her kids are at their dad’s house, Nordegren rehearses the speech she’ll give at her graduation from Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla. It was her GPA – a near-perfect 3.96 – that won her the speaking role. But just as impressive is how she determinedly chipped away at her degree, one class at a time, for nine years. From the start, her psychology studies had to accommodate travel for husband Tiger Woods’s golf tournaments. She then took off a semester for the births of each of their two children. And a bit more time as she picked herself up following revelations of Woods’s serial cheating. When Nordegren, 34, delivers her speech a few days later, she tells how life has changed in that time. For one, she notes, “I’m not married anymore,” which gets an appreciative laugh from the crowd. Back home Nordegren says, “It’s almost embarrassing to say it took nine years, but I’m proud of it. And I don’t regret a thing.”

It’s a remarkable sentiment coming from the woman who shakily emerged from her divorce wondering if her life up to that point was a lie. In late 2009, when she and Woods appeared to be happily married, he was outed by tabloids as having been with at least a dozen other women. “I felt safe with him,” Nordegren told PEOPLE then. “The word betrayal isn’t strong enough.” In the wake of the split, Nordegren was hunted by paparazzi and underwent therapy (which she continues, weekly, today) to process how her marriage had ended.

Five years on, a much happier Nordegren is talking again, this time at the 21,000-sq.-ft. North Palm Beach, Fla., mansion she built with part of the more than $100 million settlement from Woods. “This is the first time I feel like there’s a good reason for me to be in the news,” says the otherwise private, Swedish-born U.S. citizen. She’s pleased to show off the house a little: She hired Celine Dion’s decorator Angela Reynolds and designed it around the kids (putting green for Charlie, 5; soccer nets for Sam Alexis, 6; bunk beds built like ship berths for visiting cousins). Dove-gray silk carpet notwithstanding, “Elin wanted a practical, family home,” says Reynolds.

Nordegren appreciates that not every tough road and flameout marriage ends in riches—but she hopes to inspire others to finish their degrees. “I’m not saying, ‘Oh, I had it so hard, but I still finished school.’ I know how fortunate I am,” she explains, sitting with her back to a massive window framing the sea grass and surf that is her front yard. She is even happy to answer the question a lot of people might be thinking: Why would a woman with a fortune like hers need to go back to school?

Education “is always what I wanted,” says Nordegren, who in her earliest days dating Woods was often identified as a nanny (which she had been) and a model (which she really hadn’t), when she actually was a woman in her 20s with goals yet to be fulfilled. “It’s also important to show my kids,” says the recent grad, who would do her homework in the kitchen alongside her first-grade daughter. “I’d tell her, ‘See, Mommy’s studying too.’ She said, ‘So I have to do homework till I’m 34?’ ” Already Nordegren’s looking ahead to her next degree- in law or psychology.

Even as she talks about her future, it is clear that Woods will have a part in it. She and the golfer live a mere 25-minute drive apart and see each other regularly as they share custody of two busy children: T-ball and fishing for Charlie; soccer, skating and violin lessons for Sam. When Nordegren whips out her iPhone to share photos, the first one she finds is of her ex and Sam at a recent father-daughter dance. Any bitterness appears to be gone. “I have moved on, and I am in a good place. Our relationship is centered around our children, and we are doing really good – we really are. He is a great father.”

As for Woods’s 15-month-long relationship with skier Lindsey Vonn, “I’m happy for Tiger … In general, in any kind of stepparent relationship, I’m happy that there’s somebody else loving my children,” says Nordegren, whose own parents split when she was 7. “I grew up with great relationships with my stepparents.”

She, too, has a new love. Nordegren and coal magnate Chris Cline, 55, have quietly been a couple for more than a year. They met in 2011 when she bought the property adjacent to his. Cline introduced Nordegren to the faith-based child-welfare group Place of Hope, where she not only fund-raises but also – “because gala party planning was not her thing and she wanted to be hands-on with our kids,” says executive director Charles Bender—mentors girls in foster care. Cline and Nordegren, along with her brother, traveled to an orphanage in Haiti in 2012 as part of a church mission. “Chris and I, since we’ve been close, have decided not to talk about our relationship,” she says.

Whatever’s between them, when asked if marriage and more children are in her future, Nordegren pauses and, smiling, nods. “I think I would like that. Yeah,” she says. “But I have a boy and a girl, and I couldn’t ask for anything more. I feel like I’m in a great spot – great if it happens, great if it doesn’t.”

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