When Indira Pearce, of Somers Point, was laid off from her job in 2008, she was too worried about paying bills to think about going back to college.

Instead, she just took different jobs and tried to make it day to day to help support her family.

Finally, she got up the nerve to think about a long-term future.

On Thursday, Pearce, 34, was the featured student speaker at the Atlantic Cape Community College Commencement, having graduated with a perfect 4.0 grade point average and an associate’s degree in psychology.

“I know a lot of people who decided to try something new (after losing their jobs), but I wasn’t one of them,” she said of the years it took her to get up the nerve to go back to school. “I had been out of school for so long and to be honest, I was scared.”

Her path was not always easy. She had to take remedial algebra and changed her major three times as new courses caught her interest. But she persevered, and on Thursday, as her voice choked with emotion, she thanked her husband, son, mother and the faculty and staff at Atlantic Cape for helping her find her dream.

She will now attend Rutgers University’s Atlantic Cape campus to complete her bachelor’s degree. Her goal is to work on neurological research in psychology.

“This wouldn’t have been possible if I had not had the good fortune of joining you here at this school, where I was given the opportunity to discover myself, to be exposed to ideas that challenged my preconceived notions, and most significantly, where I was given the tools and taught the skills I would need to succeed,” Pearce said.

Bryan Dufresne, of Wood-bine, the Student Government president, talked about all of the things students do that might not be well-known, such as hosting holiday parties for disadvantaged children and assisting after Hurricane Sandy.

“I am so proud to be part of this class,” he said.

He added that as with many graduates, he had family, friends and faculty who supported and prodded as needed.

“Now it’s up to us,” he said. “As we sprint across the finish line, it’s also important to look back at those who helped us.”

Guest speaker Bakari G. Lee, chairman of he New Jersey Council of County Colleges, cited the diversity of the graduating class of almost 900 students. Lee said he knows it is not easy to attend college today, and he applauded the graduates for making the effort to achieve their goals.

“It makes you an example to those around you,” he said.

He said the greatest lesson he learned from his father was to give back to others, and he encouraged the students to reach back to help those coming up behind them. He told students they might not always succeed, but it is better to occasionally fail than to be a timid soul who knows neither victory nor defeat.

“You have chosen to be in the arena,” he said. “You have achieved a great task.”

College officials also recognized psychologist and Egg Harbor City native Dr. Valerie Travis-Reese, of Camden, with the Distinguished Alumni Award. The mother of two earned her associate’s degree from Atlantic Cape in 1982, a bachelor’s degree from Rutgers in 1992, a master’s degree from Rowan University in 1994 and her doctorate from Argosy University in 2011. A licensed professional counselor, she operates Miracles of the Mind, a mental health practice and consulting firm in Cherry Hill.

Robert Mullock, of Cape May, received the President’s Distinguished Foundation Board Member Award. Mullock joined the foundation board in 2005 and has supported many events, including the Scramble “Fore” Scholarships Golf Tournament and its awards dinner, which is held at his hotel, the Chalfonte in Cape May. He has also helped build orphanages in several countries and served as a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army.

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Senior copy editor for the Press of Atlantic City. Have worked as a reporter, copy editor and news editor with the paper since 1985. A graduate of the University of Delaware.