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NewsBrookdale CC student with encephalitis graduates amid tears of...

Brookdale CC student with encephalitis graduates amid tears of joy

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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.  

Jennifer Rucci receives her diploma from Brookdale President Dr. David M. Stout as her graduation hopes become a reality

“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.”

Jennifer Rucci at Brookdale Community College Commencement in Middletown, NJ on May 12, 2022.

‘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.

Jennifer Rucci (right) with her mother Angela Rucci at Brookdale Community College Commencement in Middletown, NJ on May 12, 2022.

“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. 

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