ATLANTIC CITY — Ten years ago, Luana Cordeiro was days away from graduating college when she let her addiction take over.
On Friday, she finally accepted her diploma, this time from Stockton University.
“Ten years ago, my mom had already planned my funeral, she had accepted that I was going to die,” said Cordeiro, 34, of Galloway Township. “Now, she’s just so proud.”
More than 1,800 Stockton students walked across the stage at Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall on Friday afternoon to receive their bachelor’s degrees.
Friday marked Stockton’s third graduation ceremony at Boardwalk Hall, and its first since the opening of its Atlantic City campus last fall. Many of the speeches to the undergraduates had the theme of perseverance.
“So much of how we successfully negotiate life can be learned from examining the characteristics of a great fighter,” Stockton President Harvey Kesselman told the graduates, citing Muhammad Ali, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the students themselves.
He told the students they can succeed because they have a choice.
“Use that choice to fight for yourself, fight for your dreams, fight for your communities and fight for those who cannot fight for themselves. These are the qualities of a leader who embodies both strength and grace, and, from one Osprey to another, I know you have it in you,” Kesselman said.
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The ceremony featured keynote speaker U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew, D-2nd, who told the graduates to remember all the times they picked themselves up and moved forward.
“All of you here have accomplished something great. You have overcome odds, tried, failed and then tried again until you met your goal,” Van Drew told the graduates. “And remember what it is that drove you forward. What you found within yourself that made you get back up and try again over and over until you got to where you are today.”
For Cordeiro, her journey to graduation was a hard-fought battle. She enrolled at Stockton in September to earn her final credits after completing Recovery Court last year. The single mother of three works as a counseling intern at Enlightened Solutions detox facility.
At 15, Cordeiro turned to pain medication and alcohol to cope after being sexually abused.
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“I put on a good front for a few years, I was a cheerleader, I was in the criminal justice honor society, dean’s list, but I was still dealing with this pain,” she said.
During her junior year of college at Kean University in Union, she dived deep into her addiction and was introduced to heroin.
“At that point, my addiction had progressed and I was too far gone, she said.
Although she only had to take her final exams to graduate, Cordeiro turned to drugs instead. They called her name at graduation at Kean, but she wasn’t there. A week later, she was in her first detox program.
“The next five years consisted of me being really bad in my addiction — jail, rehabs, psych ward,” Cordeiro said.
In 2014, she was arrested and detoxed while in jail. She said she made a promise to herself to try it the court’s way.
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Atlantic County Judge Mark Sandson came to the commencement to cheer on Cordeiro, whose many convictions were recently expunged.
Sandson heard Cordeiro’s story during the last Recovery Court graduation and wanted to help her complete her degree.
“I don’t think people appropriately appreciate how hard it is to change,” he said. “So many of the things we do in Recovery Court are very grim and difficult, and we face a lot of failure, but when you have a tremendous success like this, we’re all here to celebrate it.”
Sandson, Assignment Judge Julio Mendez and Atlantic County Prosecutor Damon G. Tyner reached out to Stockton and were able to get Cordeiro a full scholarship from a program through the courts.
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“We’re rejoicing,” Sandson said Friday.
Cordeiro said she wasn’t sure she could do it, but knew she couldn’t say “no.” She attended school at night, worked full-time during the day, and took classes for her certification in alcohol and drug counseling, all while raising three children on her own.
Cordeiro plans to enroll next semester for her master’s degree in social work.
“I’m just going to keep pushing. This has taught me no matter what how strong we can be if we just put our mind to it,” Cordeiro said.
Veletta Mister, of Pleasantville, took a different route to graduation Friday.
Mister graduated from Passaic County College in the 1970s with an associate degree in marketing, and although she was accepted to Rutgers at the time, she decided to move to Atlantic City for a job in the casinos. She was laid off from Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort when it closed in October 2016 and enrolled at Atlantic Cape Community College, then transferred to Stockton.
“I’ve always wanted to go back to school,” said Mister, who identified herself as a senior citizen but declined to give her age.
She graduated Friday with her bachelor’s degree in liberal arts.
“Anybody, regardless of your age, is entitled to an education,” Mister said. “It’s up to the individual. I wanted to complete my degree, so I did.”
PHOTOS from Stockton University's 2019 graduation at Boardwalk Hall
More than 1,800 Stockton students are walked across the stage at Boardwalk Hall Friday afternoon to receive their bachelor's degree, the college's first commencement since opening its new city campus along Albany Avenue in September.