Life is a gamble, but Ana Lopez knew going back to school would better the odds.

A former cocktail waitress at Borgata Casino in Atlantic City, Lopez had seen people taking risks for years. She also knew that getting a college degree was one of the safest bets she could make, although she had put it off for more than a decade.

“I had taken a different route,” she explains. “I had my daughter very young, and although I’d always wanted to further my education after high school, I dedicated my life to raising her. I put those other dreams on hold.”

Then, at 31, the single working mother decided to return to school, commuting from her Galloway Township home to classes at Atlantic Cape Community College. It took a while. After earning her associate’s degree, she continued on to earn a Rutgers University bachelor’s degree through the Rutgers Statewide partnerships program, a degree completion partnership between the University and six community colleges. It is part of the Rutgers Division of Continuing Studies. The Division offers courses for those who have already graduated, including senior citizens, or non-traditional students like Ana looking to get their degree at a later-than-normal age. 

“These are Rutgers courses, taught by Rutgers faculty,” explains Jason Jankowski, manager of academic programs for Rutgers at Atlantic Cape.

It is a program perfectly suited to students who may have work schedules or family obligations that make getting to an actual Rutgers campus difficult. It certainly worked for Lopez, who graduated in 2019 at 39, with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.

She took home not merely a diploma but also a George Masterton Award, named after the first chair of the University’s Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Criminal Justice, and given for “academic achievement, significant contributions to the University and larger communities and intellectual promise.”

“Nominees for the award have to have a GPA over 3.0, but it’s not just about being a bookworm,” says Ross Allen, a teaching instructor at Rutgers-Camden. “You have to be involved, do research and have internships… One of the awards is always reserved for an off-campus student and this year, to me, nominating Ana felt like a no-brainer.”

“When they told me, I was like ‘What?’” Lopez says, laughing. “I was in shock.  I have never won anything in my life! And for academic achievement? I was so proud.”

Her teachers are, too.

Allen, who first met Lopez in his course on violent crime, calls her “a natural student – someone who participated in class not to help her grade but because she really wanted to know. Really diligent, responsible, hardworking – it’s why I referred her to an internship at the Camden probation office.”

Joseph DaGrossa, the federal probation officer who supervised that internship, echoes the praise. “We only take one intern a year, so it’s a rare thing, but she was a natural,” says DaGrossa, who is also on the adjunct faculty at Rutgers-Camden. “I just marvel at her perseverance. She had a dedication to her studies I wish I saw in all my students.”

Still, it has been “a long journey,” Lopez admits.

“I started in the casino industry 20 years ago,” she says. “Although it’s been good to me, I realized I had to get out to really better myself, and education was key. I studied real estate first, and got my license, but then the whole housing bubble popped. Then I heard a law firm needed a translator. I did some work for them and found out I liked law. That was the turning point.”

Of course, many obstacles remained, even after she started college.

“It was definitely hard,” admits Lopez, who continued working throughout her schooling – and eventually had a second child, a boy, to care for as well.

“I’m the kind of person who wants to give 100 percent in everything – being a mom, working, studying – and it was a challenge,” she says. “I lacked a lot of confidence at first.  Everything was so new.”

Luckily, Lopez is just the kind of student that the Rutgers Statewide partnerships can help.

“We have plenty of students who’ve done two years at a community college, and now want to pursue their bachelor’s,” says Jankowski. “But we also serve nontraditional students who’ve had to interrupt their studies.”

“We have one student whose granddaughter told her she was too old to go back to school,” Jankowski recounts. “Well, I’ll show you,” she said. She’s in her late 70s and she’s finishing her bachelor’s now.”

Although the education found at the Division of Continuing Studies is identical to what you would find on any Rutgers campus, the off-site program offers a few unique benefits.

“Our multiple locations throughout the state allow students to stay closer to home, which provides savings for commuting and housing costs,” Jankowski says. “And for our nontraditional students, we try to tailor our coaching and counseling by giving it a more personalized touch.”

For Lopez, that extra attention turned her gamble into a sure thing.

“The advisors, the professors, they really push you, encourage you, ‘You can do this’ – tell you all those words you need to hear to succeed,” Lopez says. “That was really important.  I missed a lot of time with my children going back to school, but I feel like I can be a real role model now. My daughter, I am so proud of her – she is studying criminal justice at Temple. My son, he is 6, and he says ‘When I grow up, I’m going to go to college, too!’ And I say, ‘Yes. Yes, you are.’”