Gina Harvell has been awarded the 2023 Lifelong Learner of the Year award. 

In her early 30s, Gina Harvell regularly got high at Atlantic City’s Brown Park, across from Atlantic Cape Community College. “I’d see young people coming and going and think, I want to go to school,” the mother of three said.

More than two decades later, after a long road of addiction, imprisonment, cancer, homelessness, and loss, the 54-year-old earned her associate degree from Atlantic Cape Community College and Bachelor of Science degree in social work, with a minor in drug and alcohol counseling, through Rutgers Statewide.

Harvell was honored during a recent ceremony recognizing her achievement as the recipient of the 2023 Lifelong Learner of the Year award.

“I wanted to prove I could do it, and I did,” said Harvell, who maintained a 3.95 grade point average. Building on her degree, Harvell is pursuing a Master's Degree in Social Work to help people overcome struggles as she did. Harvell is living proof it can be done.

"Gina uses her trauma and her past to help others, letting them know that there is always hope, that recovery is possible,"

– Michelle Carlamere

“Gina uses her trauma and her past to help others, letting them know that there is always hope, that recovery is possible,” said Michelle Carlamere, a licensed clinical social worker who teaches Rutgers social work integration seminar. “Her graduation in May is proof that hard work, focus, and perseverance pays off!”

Managed by Rutgers University’s Division of Continuing Studies, Rutgers Statewide is a program that allows students to earn Rutgers bachelor degrees at one of six community colleges across the state. Offering nontraditional students accessibility and flexibility is at the heart of DoCS’ mission.

Harvell proudly wore a red Rutgers Social Work sweatshirt as she held up the many Dean’s List certificates she has earned. When the first one arrived in the mail, “I didn’t know a Dean’s List was,” she said.

She’d dropped out of high school in eleventh grade when she became pregnant. Harvell took jobs at retail stores and fast-food restaurants while she and her daughter lived with Harvell’s mother. She had two more children by her early 20s.

By her late 20s, Harvell was using cocaine and heroin. After her mother died of breast cancer, Harvell’s drug use intensified, and her father took custody of her children. Harvell entered a cycle of shoplifting to buy drugs, and serving time behind bars.

Harvell stopped using drugs for stretches, getting custody of her children back when her father died of cancer in 2000. The day before he died, Harvell’s father wrote a notarized letter describing how she had cared for him. He gave his blessing for the children to be returned to her, she said.

When Harvell began using again, she became homeless. By then, her older children were living on their own. Her youngest went to Covenant House, a nonprofit that shelters teenagers.

Her final arrest in 2007 landed her in state prison for a year, and then a halfway house for a second. Harvell recalled a group counseling session at the halfway house, where she asked the therapist about her experience with drugs. The therapist had none, and Harvell had little interest in what she had to say.

"That's when a light bulb went off. I though, I want to be there for someone else going through this, as someone they can relate to so they won't shut down,"

– Gina Harvell

“That’s when a lightbulb went off. I thought, I want to be there for someone else going through this, as someone they can relate to so they won’t shut down,” she said. Harvell earned her high school equivalency degree while at the halfway house.

Once released, Harvell enrolled at Atlantic Cape Community College and flourished. After two semesters, though, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, which had claimed her mother, a sister and a cousin. Testing positive for a BRCA mutation, Harvell left school and underwent radical treatment. Her fiancé, Lawrence Blackledge, was the backbone of the support network that helped her get through the ordeal.

She returned to Atlantic Cape several years later to complete her associate’s degree.

“Professors were telling me, ‘you need to go for your bachelor’s to really help people,’” she recalled. Harvell enrolled in Rutgers Statewide at the Atlantic Cape Campus, taking courses close to home and online.

She interned at Covenant House and at the hospice service that helped care for her father. “That was my way of giving back to them,” she said. Harvell has worked part-time at the John Brooks Recovery Center in Pleasantville for six years.

Years into her sobriety and on the path to her bachelor’s degree, her stepmother surprised her with a birthday gift: a necklace that had belonged to her father before Harvell sold it at a pawn shop for drug money. The pendant had an image of Jesus on one side, Mary on the other. Her stepmother had purchased it back three years earlier.

“She kept it until she thought I was ready for it,” Harvell said, wiping tears from her eyes. “Now, I don’t go anywhere without it.”

The Pleasantville resident has much to look forward to. Harvell and Blackledge plan to wed after she graduates. A grandmother of four, Harvell intends to work with either children or senior citizens — “they are my passion!” she said.

“Gina is a true lifelong learner, she has learned from every obstacle and triumph and moved forward,” said Elizabeth Moore, associate program manager of Rutgers Statewide at Atlantic Cape Community College.

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