When Carolynne Lewis-Arévalo ’12 stepped to the podium to deliver the student address at Rider’s graduate and College of Continuing Studies Commencement ceremonies on May 16, she, like many who proceeded her, claimed the honor was unexpected.
It is a sincere gesture of gracious humility, a nod to the others who vied for the opportunity, that they, too, could have voiced the graduating class’s valediction with similar eloquence.
But in Lewis-Arévalo’s case, it truly was unexpected. That is to say, when she dropped out of Randolph (N.J.) High School in 1978, graduating from college summa cum laude and addressing her classmates on Commencement day was about the last thing she ever expected. And yet, there she was.
“With no one to guide me, I drifted through life for years, struggling just to survive,” said Lewis-Arévalo, who suffered abuse at home, in school, and later, in her ill-fated marriage. “I never thought of myself as bright or capable, but rather, as a high-school dropout; a failure. I carried my failure with me like a ball and chain. It impacted every area of my life and colored every decision I made.”
Only after 15 years as a single parent, with her own children approaching college age, did Lewis-Arévalo begin to take stock of herself – and her future. She had a chance, she realized, to become the person she really wanted to be. What she became exceed her wildest expectations.
She began exploring Mercer County Community College, trying to find her niche by taking various aptitude tests to help find a direction.
“It became clear to me that I was meant to be a counselor; to encourage and empower young people who lacked direction, and needed support,” recalled Lewis-Arévalo, who noted that at that point, her only aim was to get a better job. She enrolled at MCCC, working by day and taking classes by night for four years to earn her associate degree, but the true takeaway was so much more.
“When I graduated summa cum laude, with my children there cheering me on, all of my shame at having dropped out of high school was erased,” she said. “I felt very proud.”
Lewis-Arévalo was being exposed to a world of knowledge, but the biggest change taking place within her was a surge of confidence and self-esteem. She began to ask, what else can I do?
Since enrolling at Rider to complete her bachelor’s degree in Psychology with a minor in Social Work, she has become increasingly active in the battle against domestic violence, both in the classroom and beyond. As an officer of Omicron Delta Kappa, the National Leadership Honor Society, Lewis-Arévalo co-hosted the Womanspace 2011 Communities of Light Kickoff Ceremony, where she spoke to donors and supporters about her journey from being a battered wife, to being a Response Team Member who offers comfort and support to victims.
The Andrew J. Rider Scholar was also chosen to speak at the Founders Day program that year, an event that led to the opportunity to speak to local middle-schoolers about bullying.
“The night before I did that the first time, I was laying awake wondering what I’d say to them,” Lewis-Arévalo recalled. “But, the truth is, kids respond to stories, so I told them about a little girl who was battered and abused – me, really – and asked them what they could do to make a difference in that situation.”
Lewis-Arévalo, who actually completed her degree requirements in December 2012 and is pursuing a graduate degree in counseling, is eager to tout the transformative powers of education.
“I only took one class when I first started, because I was so afraid of failure. I didn’t even know how to write an essay,” recalled Lewis-Arévalo, whose professor first thought she was being difficult when she admitted this. “But I became a top student very quickly. I had no idea how competitive I was until I started school. I really am the poster child for education.”