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Overcoming Addiction, Breast Cancer and Homelessness, Alumna Gina Harvell’s Determination Leads to Master’s Degree in Social Work

04/10/2024 | Media Contact: David Zuba, Public Relations Manager and Copywriter | (609) 343-4933
Atlantic Cape Alumna Gina Harvell with President Dr. Barbara Gaba

MAYS LANDING — For Atlantic City native Gina Harvell it began as a dream, one that seemed impossible and unimaginable. Homelessness and drug addiction had led her to existing day-in and day-out in the formerly-dilapidated Brown’s Park, which is located directly across the street from Atlantic Cape Community College’s Charles D. Worthington Atlantic City campus. It was here where Harvell would spend innumerable hours wondering, dreaming and hoping for brighter days.

When she became a young mother at the age of 17, Harvell was forced to drop out of high school. Afterwards, she would spend many days in the park getting high. Life was very difficult and many hurdles, including addiction, imprisonment and the passing of her mother, impeded her path forward towards redemption. Even during her darkest hours, while sitting alone in that park and with every seed of doubt percolating in her mind, Harvell had a dream. She knew her ultimate path and, in her heart, realized that she wanted to be in the service of others.

While access to higher education was never physically far away, for Harvell, in reality, the distance appeared to be an unbridgeable gulf.

“While I was in that park I used to look across at Atlantic Cape and wonder why can’t I go to that school. I would say to myself, ‘Oh Gina, you don’t have a high school diploma.’ So, I continued for many more years getting high in that park,” said Harvell.

Gina Harvell receives her Lifelong Learner AwardUltimately, it was the close, loving bond with her family and faith that finally led Harvell to acknowledge that she needed to change her life for not only her family, but for herself and her future.

“My children motivated me to become a better mother. I told myself that once I had a grandchild that I would never use drugs again,” admitted Harvell. “And, while I was away at a halfway house, my son came to visit me and tell me that his girlfriend was pregnant. When I came home my grandson was 30 days old and I never looked back.”

In September of 2010, Harvell achieved her first goal by attaining her high school diploma by the State of New Jersey’s Department of Education after passing her General Educational Development (GED) exam.

Eight years later when Harvell registered at Atlantic Cape in 2018 she was certain of the path that she intended to follow. In the service of helping others became her calling, her life and professional goal.

“I let my advisor know what path I wanted to take and she guided me through that path,” said Harvell, who received a Powell Family Foundation/Jon R. Powell Family Division scholarship, assistance from Atlantic Cape’s Financial Aid department, input and direction from Testing Specialist Darick Garrison, numerous math tutors and Vita Stovall, student service navigator at the Worthington Atlantic City campus, who helped Harvell select and register for all of her classes.

Gina Harvell with friends and family“Advising with Ms. Vita was always a stress-free experience. She seemed to plan my classes according to my vision and was always on point. I also utilized Student Support Services because I was always in some office asking a question about something and everyone at Atlantic Cape was always so helpful,” said Harvell.

Her math tutors were an invaluable asset to have at her disposal whenever Harvell needed assistance.

“If it was not for the math tutor when I took Math 073, before I was introduced to Professor Osler, I don't know how I would have made it through that class. The math tutor was amazing because she kept me interested in math and simplified it for me,” said Harvell.

Having the ability to access funding through the Community College Opportunity Grant (CCOG), which is a program through the State of New Jersey that provides free tuition and approved educational fees to qualifying students with an adjusted gross income under $65,000, made higher education a reality for Harvell.

“I would not have been able to afford college without the CCOG funding,” admitted Harvell, who also received financial aid and grant subsidies to help pay for her time at Atlantic Cape. “After just coming home from prison and only working a minimum wage job because I did not have an education, finding the income to pay for college would have been a barrier for me to pursue my dreams.”

Harvell and Gaba in 2019Atlantic Cape President Dr. Barbara Gaba recalled the first time she met Harvell in 2019.

“I’ll never forget the day that Gina and I first met. I host Pizza with the President on all of our campuses where I engage with our students. That day Gina came up to me and asked, ‘Can I give you a hug?’ She began to tell me her story and how far she had come in her journey through persistence and hard work,” recalled Gaba.

Harvell eventually rid herself of her demons, survived breast cancer and earned her Associate in Science Degree in Human Services from Atlantic Cape in 2020.

“I wouldn’t be sitting here if I had given up. I gave up in my head so many times, but in my heart, I knew that I was there,” concluded Harvell. “I was determined to reach my goal of becoming a social worker and being able to give back to the community I grew up in. Never look down on anyone. Never turn your back on anyone because the next Gina Harvell could be looking for that spark.”

“Gina was able to realize her educational goals despite facing obstacles that easily could have deterred her. Gina took every advantage of the opportunities offered to her and worked extremely hard to accomplish where she is today. Indeed, she is a role model for so many who share a life story that's similar to hers. She is an inspiration to all of us,” proclaimed Gaba.

Through it all, Harvell believed in herself and her dreams, and received unwavering support from her husband, children, family and friends. After graduating from Atlantic Cape, Harvell continued her education at Rutgers University where she would earn her Bachelor’s Degree, Summa Cum Laude, in Social Work in 2022, as well as her Master’s Degree in Social Work in 2024 at Rutgers’ Lifelong Learning Center on Atlantic Cape’s Mays Landing campus, which opened in 2012.

Dr. Gaba praised the collaboration between the two institutions of higher learning.

“Atlantic Cape and Rutgers have a long-standing relationship, partnership that has provided numerous opportunities for local residents, such as Gina, to make it possible for them to pursue educational opportunities closer to home that may not have been possible elsewhere,” said Gaba.

Harvell and Richard Novak of RutgersRecognizing her accomplishments and personal perseverance, Rutgers Statewide, Division of Continuing Studies Vice President Richard J. Novak presented Harvell with the inaugural Lifelong Learner Award, whose creation was inspired by her story, on January 11 during a ceremony at the Rutgers building on Atlantic Cape’s Mays Landing campus.

“We are all here today to say that what seems impossible is really possible. A person who suffered with homelessness, addiction, incarceration can be transformed, can be a success, can stand as a role model for lifelong learners everywhere,” said Novak. “We could not think of a more outstanding example than Gina of a lifelong learner.”

Harvell’s accomplishments are a true sign of hope and inspiration for all.

“We love heroes. Heroes who do things that we never thought we could do. Gina falls into this category. She has done things and accomplished what many, if not most of us, thought could never be done. She stands as an inspiration for us all,” said Novak. “It takes a village to raise a successful lifelong learner each step along the way. But, Gina did the hard work and as we acknowledge her story we are here to celebrate her success because she is also our success, and we are so proud and humbled by that success.”


About Atlantic Cape Community College

Atlantic Cape Community College is a Middle States accredited, 2022 Achieving the Dream Leader College and Hispanic Serving Institution proudly serving the residents of Atlantic and Cape May counties. As a comprehensive, two-year community college, Atlantic Cape offers 47 undergraduate degree programs, and 33 certificate and workforce development professional series programs at its Mays Landing, Atlantic City and Cape May campuses. Atlantic Cape is home to the renowned Academy of Culinary Arts, rated the top culinary school in New Jersey, and for more than 50 years, our highly-acclaimed Nursing program. Atlantic Cape also partners with several four-year universities to offer students the opportunity to earn a bachelor’s degree without having to leave home.