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Art of the Rebound

RCSJ student draws on family, counselors, coaches, and professors to advance forward.

Jinelys Alvarez flies her soon-to-be new school colors, flanked by Rich Cooper, RCSJ assistant AD and head women’s basketball coach (left), and Jim Jefferson, Gloucester County commissioner deputy director.

As Jinelys Alvarez approached her graduation from Rowan College of South Jersey (RCSJ) on May 10, the Health Sciences major could not help but marvel at everything she has achieved. The former basketball player and future Delaware State University student has perfected the art of the rebound and is fearlessly redirecting her way to success.

The Vineland High School graduate admits that college was not necessarily part of her plan, until a wildly successful basketball season secured a division win for Vineland and the attention of RCSJ Roadrunners head women’s basketball coach and assistant director of athletics, Rich Cooper. Coach Cooper began reaching out to discuss her performance on the court and her plans for the future.

“He watched my senior games and would just, like, reach out to me after every game,” explained Alvarez. “Before I really knew him—I just knew him on the phone—he was there for me to help with my financial aid and help figure things out. Even if I wanted to apply somewhere else, it didn’t matter. And I think his just constantly reaching out to me was the reason why I decided to play at RCSJ.”

This new goal of attending RCSJ helped motivate Alvarez to get her grades up in high school, and she improved her GPA by a full point in her senior year. In September 2021, she enrolled as a Digital Marketing major in RCSJ’s Rowan Choice program and began playing college basketball as a Roadrunner.

The Rowan Choice program is a unique partnership between RCSJ and Rowan University that provides a residential college experience without the associated price tag. Students live on Rowan University’s campus while attending RCSJ classes, providing a substantial savings on tuition and fees. Alvarez was excited to tackle this next phase of her life, but things did not go as she intended.

“I didn’t realize I had issues with my mental health until I got to college,” she recounted. “Freshman year is when I started to notice that I have anxiety and some attachment issues. I didn’t know how to let go of home. It was tough to make friends out here and stay out here, instead of going home every weekend. And then it started effecting my schoolwork, and basketball, and everything else.”

Alvarez tried to muscle through these issues on her own, but by the following spring semester, she was stressed out, losing too much weight, and unable to keep her grades up. Her anxiety and depression had become overwhelming; following a hospitalization, she decided to leave RCSJ to focus on her health.

“It was really hard for me. I went to the hospital for, like, a week. I had a lot of therapy sessions before I went back home,” said Alvarez. “I realized if I go back too fast, nothing’s going to change. My mental health was just more important at that time.”

So, she went home to her family in Vineland and gave herself the time she needed to recover. Alvarez focused on practicing the coping skills she had learned in therapy and got a retail job where she started pushing herself to engage in conversations with customers and reconnect to her natural, “social butterfly” personality. After a while, her mother—who had urged her to come home when she was ill—began encouraging Alvarez to consider taking another shot at college.

In September 2022, she re-enrolled in the Rowan Choice program and rejoined the basketball team determined to do things differently. She was able to keep her original roommates and began working hard on integrating herself into the campus community and focusing on her studies.

“When I came back in the fall, I stopped focusing on things from home. I really think that was the problem: I would focus on things that had nothing to do with my schoolwork,” Alvarez shared. “I didn’t join any [student] clubs because I wanted to focus on my grades, but I did start putting myself out there. I was in the library a lot, having conversations with people, and I made friends through my roommates, too. I just talk to everybody now—that’s key. Because you’d think that talking to somebody who’s sitting by themself doesn’t matter, but you create a bond. Then it’s easy to talk the next time you bump into each other on campus.”

She was making friends, enjoying playing for the Roadrunners, and trying to focus on her studies, but something still felt off. Alvarez began doing some serious thinking about her major. Digital Marketing felt like the wrong fit, so she started discussing her concerns with RCSJ assistant director of athletics Leanne Schoening and RCSJ adjunct instructor Dr. Ya Vanca Brooks.

“I kept thinking that I don’t really like my major,” Alvarez explained. “I’m not invested in it at all and maybe that’s why my grades are so low—because this isn’t something I want to do.”

Brooks spent time with her, going over possible career paths and the level of education required for employment. It was then that Alvarez began sharing that she had always had a passion for healthcare.

“I always wanted to be in the health field, but I never knew exactly what I wanted to do. Everything required so much school and I don’t have that much money for school to be going for that long,” she said.

Brooks started going over her options and Alvarez discovered that she could pursue a Health Science degree and become a dental hygienist after only four years of school. Schoening guided her through the process of changing her major and registering for classes. Her new major would require transferring to a four-year school to complete her bachelor’s degree, and she knew exactly what kind of school she hoped to attend.

“I was like, I don’t know where I want to transfer to, but I do know that I want to go to an HBCU (Historically Black College and University),” Alvarez shared. “Those schools have so much culture involved in everything they do and a lot of history.”

She was introduced to Kenyatta Collins, dean of the Academy of Student Enrichment, to start looking into her transfer options. Collins told her about new transfer partnerships RCSJ was working on with two prestigious HBCUs—Delaware State University and Lincoln University, P.A. Alvarez fell in love with Delaware State, but she knew her grades would have to improve to be admitted.

“I went to their Open House, and everything was amazing! When you’re actually there it’s even nicer than the pictures,” Alvarez recounted. “I don’t even know how to explain it. I had fun. Even my mom had fun—she couldn’t stop talking about it for weeks. She was like: I understand why you want to come here.”

That is when the magic happened. Her new goal of attending Delaware State and switching to a new major she was excited about, gave Alvarez the fuel she needed.

She made the tough decision to end her basketball career to focus fully on her studies and began meeting with Collins weekly to check in on her progress and how she was handling day-to-day stressors.

“I don’t know if I manifested it or not, but I got straight A’s in the fall,” she joked. “I was just more invested in my schoolwork. I actually enjoyed researching, and writing my essays, and doing my assignments. With Digital Marketing I just wanted to get it done; with Health Sciences I was actually learning, getting things done, and enjoying myself at the same time.”

She was doing so well academically, that Collins, Cooper, and others at the College began introducing her to students who were struggling, so she could provide some advice and peer support. She even began inspiring people in her personal life to consider earning their college degree.

“My friends see me going through the whole college thing, and they’re like: I think I actually want to go to school now,” said Alvarez. “I have a younger brother and now he’s saying he wants to go to college because of me. And when he does go through it, I’ll be ready to help him.”

When RCSJ formalized its partnership agreement with Delaware State University on March 18, 2024, Collins knew that Alvarez would be the perfect student to speak at the event. As she stood in front of the gathered crowd, she shared her journey thus far and her excitement at being accepted into the University. “Everyone was really emotional about my speech, because they knew everything that I had to go through to even get to that point,” Alvarez recounts. “The support I received at RCSJ means a lot to me, especially being first-generation and not knowing what to do. It meant a lot having those people there to guide me and have 100 percent trust in me that I was going to do what I said I was going to do. It just felt great having people who believed in me even more than I believed in myself.”

While she is experiencing some nervousness about leaving RCSJ, transferring to Delaware State University, and living on a campus even further away from home, she knows that the “new Jinelys” will have no problem succeeding on this next leg of her educational journey.

“If ‘high school me’ decided to go far away for college straight out of high school, I wouldn’t have been okay. I probably wouldn’t have even finished the first semester,” Alvarez reflected. “I’m so proud of myself, because freshman me would have never thought that in just a few years she was going to be fine. Going through what I went through definitely grew my character and now I can be by myself if I want to. So, I’m really proud of myself. And my family’s proud of me. Because they know everything that I went through, so they’re proud of me and so excited about all the new opportunities I’m about to get.”

On May 10, when Alvarez strode across the commencement stage to accept the RCSJ diploma she worked so hard to earn, she was not alone in that pride. In addition to her loved ones who have been cheering her on this whole time, she had a sea of RCSJ faces beaming with pride and support, including Brooks, Collins, Cooper, Schoening, and so many others.

“Jinelys persevered through many ups and downs while she was a student here, but she always had the goal to go to an HBCU. I am so proud of her and know she will do great things at Delaware State University,” remarked Coach Cooper.

“Honestly, I can’t say enough great things about Jinelys! When we first met, she was unsure of herself, unsure of her major, and unsure of her future. Now she’s graduating and leaving RCSJ motivated, confident, and ready to take on the world,” shared Schoening. “I couldn’t be prouder of her. She’s the type of student who reminds us (in higher education) why we love what we do.”

“Jinelys is a fighter, not in the physical sense, but in her spirit,” said Brooks. “When she was faced with financial obstacles, and the possibility of not being able to finish her degree at RCSJ, she made up her mind and fought back. Now, here she is across the finish line, and on her way to fulfilling the rest of her college dreams. Jinelys, you will be forever in my heart.”

“Students like Jinelys motive me to provide whatever support is necessary to help them to achieve their goals,” remarked Collins. “I’m so proud of her resilience that I witnessed this past year in her grades and personal growth. As I watched her walk across the stage to accept her associate’s degree, what ran through my head was: Wow, I love what I do here at Rowan College South Jersey.”

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