MIDDLETOWN – How badly did Jennifer Rucci want to graduate from Brookdale Community College?
She sold jewelry from her motorized wheelchair, sometimes going to door to door in the office buildings around campus.
She waited outdoors for an hour or more, sometimes in the rain, to make sure the access bus didn’t accidentally pass her by.
She typed term papers with one finger, because that’s the only finger that worked.
The 49-year-old from Freehold, who has a progressive debilitating illness since age 3, reached her goal Thursday. It took 10 years, but she did it: Rucci earned an associate’s degree amid tears of joy at Brookdale’s commencement.
“I remember the first day I walked in the door. I said to myself, ‘What the heck am I doing here?’” Rucci recalled. “It was a hard road, especially for me.”
She didn’t travel it alone. Rucci’s graduation was a meaningful event for the professors and tutors who worked with her along the way. She’s become such a part of the fabric at Brookdale, a group of them threw her a party last week. They presented her with an award, a crystal trophy that read, “Most Inspiring Student.”
“It’s really remarkable, what she’s done,” said English professor Nicolette Nicola, who tutored Rucci for 10 years. “Someone who has worked this hard for this long to try to achieve something, and not given up on it? I’ve never seen anything like it.”
‘Her wheels would break’
At age 3 Rucci developed encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain caused by infection. It permanently impacted her motor functions. She rallied well enough to graduate Freehold Township High School on schedule at age 18, but her condition worsened over time to the point where she can’t walk and has difficulty talking.
Even during her decade at Brookdale, her speech has declined, and the spasticity in her hands has increased.
“It’s gotten so much worse,” said her mother, Angela Rucci. “She is just a marvel.”
Jen resides in supervised living at the New Jersey Institute for Disabilities in Woodbridge. She commuted to Brookdale’s campus in Middletown via Access Link, the New Jersey paratransit program.
“Sometimes she would have to wait outside because the bus driver would leave without her if he didn’t see her,” Nicola said. “She would wait there in the rain if she had to.”
The pandemic allowed her to attend school virtually, but that proved even more challenging for someone who struggles to communicate. At one point last year she found herself on the hook for a surprise tuition balance of $1,387 and considered dropping out. The matter was resolved by the Brookdale Foundation, a charity arm of the college.
“I haven’t seen someone at that level of being so tenacious and not giving up, especially this past year, when she really did want to give up,” said Maria Zdroik, a special education advocate who worked with Rucci. “We did a Facetime and I said, ‘You’re really close; you came this far.’ She had a big grin on her face and said, ‘Yes I did.’”
The hurdles were constant.
“She had a tablet that was attached to her wheelchair for a long time; it broke and never was replaced,” Nicola said. “Her wheels would break a lot. We’d help her get her wheels fixed. There just have been so many things she’s had to overcome.”
Rucci’s perseverance is a testament to her willpower, and also to the dedication of Brookdale’s Academic Access Program, which offers tutoring and guidance to students with disabilities.
“Many tutors across campus had Jen’s back,” said Laura Kirkwood, the program’s administrator. “Jen is definitely one of the hardest cases I’ve seen in terms of the challenge.”
It helped, Kirkwood said, that “she’s a delightful person, positive, and you can tell she has a great spirit about her.”
Kathy Richardson, a tutor who worked with Rucci this past year, said it was a lesson in perspective.
“Inspiring doesn’t even say it, to the extent that we’ve benefitted from her,” Richardson said.
Rucci was deeply touched by the party the Academic Access Program’s staff threw for her.
“It meant so much to me,” she said, expressing mixed emotions about moving on. “I feel happy and sad. I’m going to miss everybody. They were so good to me.”
Rucci doesn’t have specific plans, beyond a graduation party. She already has a vocation, volunteering at JFK University Medical Center in Edison, doing whatever she can to help out. She wanted to graduate from college to prove she could do it.
Her mother, Angela Rucci, couldn’t find the words to describe the accomplishment.
“Anytime somebody mentions it,” she said, “I start crying.”
The message atop Jen’s graduation cap summarized the feat best: “She believed she could, so she did.”
Jerry Carino is community columnist for the Asbury Park Press, focusing on the Jersey Shore’s interesting people, inspiring stories and pressing issues. Contact him at [email protected]