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Student commencement speaker wants to make large-scale impact on public health

May 11, 2018

Mariela Lucaj

Nursing major Mariela Lucaj of North Kingstown is the Class of 2018 student commencement speaker.

Enrolling at the Community College of Rhode Island provided Mariela Lucaj with more than just a quality education at an affordable price.

Attending classes for three years at the Newport County Campus, the 21-year-old Albanian nursing major and North Kingstown resident learned to broaden her horizons while breaking free from what she describes as the status quo of many immigrants who often settle for careers in high-demand fields with minimal risks.

“They want the American dream, but they want safe dreams,” said Lucaj, CCRI’s 2018 student commencement speaker. “CCRI pointed me in the right direction.”

Lucaj’s graduation completes a satisfying, three-year journey in which she served as president of the Newport Student Government and a student representative on the Rhode Island Board of Education’s Council on Postsecondary Education.

Lucaj will take her nursing board exam this summer and work in the field while continuing her nursing education at the University of Rhode Island, but not before delivering this year’s student commencement address at The Dunkin’ Donuts Center.

“I’m so excited,” Lucaj said. “Honestly, I never thought of it before I was nominated. It’s definitely a great honor.”

Her odyssey from Albania to the halls of CCRI personifies the American dream many with a similar background share. Sixteen years ago, Lucaj left Albania with her parents and three siblings to pursue a better life in the United States. Her parents were unable to attend college because Albania was still under communist reign at the time, so they wanted their children to take advantage of opportunities they never had at home.

Lucaj’s older brother attended CCRI for two years and now works in the film industry while her older sister – Lucaj is the second youngest – enrolled at a private institution in New York. Based on their experiences, Lucaj decided CCRI was the right choice. Rather than take out substantial student loans elsewhere, she worked three jobs in high school to save up enough money to attend CCRI, which left her with little to no time for extracurricular activities.

“When I came to CCRI and applied for scholarships and had less of a financial burden, that was my opportunity to explore my interests,” Lucaj said.

After satisfying her general education requirements in her first year, Lucaj began the two-year process of navigating CCRI’s challenging nursing program during the semester in which the college implemented a new curriculum. The course load was demanding, and Lucaj nearly reached her breaking point on several occasions, but the faculty in the nursing program – many of whom she says served as mentors – helped her stay on the right path.

Her experience adjusting to the new curriculum also inspired her honors project at CCRI, a proposal to create a nursing leadership position in which student representatives would interact with faculty to implement changes to the program based on fellow students’ feedback.

“Everyone from professors to the staff in Enrollment Services was so helpful,” Lucaj said. “I had issues with my financial aid. I had issues with FAFSA and wasn’t sure if I could continue on, but they helped me through it. Without their help and support, I wouldn’t have returned.

“The staff is super helpful. It’s so personalized. Everyone knows everyone. Whether it’s counseling or enrollment services, they know every student by name.”

In her role as student government president, Lucaj interacted with classmates from all walks of life, drawing from their experiences to help guide her own path. She hosted a variety of events on the Newport campus, including the Women’s Power Hour summit in 2017 aimed at empowering women in the workforce. Her various roles reaffirmed her commitment to becoming a strong female leader advocating for others.

“Every student is so different,” Lucaj said. “The cool thing was I’ve taken online courses, summer classes, daytimes courses and courses on night and weekends, and I feel like I’ve seen such a wide range and variety of students. Each one is more impressive than the next. They are what inspired me to write my speech and keep going. It puts everything into perspective.”

Determined to help those without a voice, Lucaj decided working as a nurse was merely the first step – and an important teaching tool – toward achieving her ultimate goal of one day working in public health and implementing meaningful, widespread changes in the current health care system.

“I want to make a larger-scale impact,” she said. “I want to be part of a health care system and work as a team, be challenged constantly, give back to the people and work with them. I’m not sure if I’d go into government or the private sector. Either way, I just want to make large-scale changes to health care to improve the lives of people in general.”

Since high school, Lucaj has worked tirelessly to pursue the American dream. With CCRI as the inspiration for her new path in life, the journey is just beginning.

“CCRI definitely offered me so many opportunities,” Lucaj said. “I would say, first and foremost, it’s an affordable option, but you’re not getting less. You’re getting a quality education. There are so many areas of study and the professors and faculty care deeply about your success.” 

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