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UNM graduate rises from the depths of addiction to earn his psychology degree

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A year ago, Jaime Cervantes was detoxing in jail, another unimaginable low in his living hell.

His addiction – born shortly after he started school at UCLA in 1995 – had already robbed him of 20 years. It had cost him jobs. Ravaged relationships. Overwhelmed him with hopelessness.

More than 20 years after he started college — and a year after a drug arrest that changed his life — Jaime Cervantes will get his bachelor’s degree in psychology at the University of New Mexico’s commencement ceremony today. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

His June 2016 arrest came with drug charges that could mean prison time.

And yet he calls it the best thing that could have happened to him, ground zero for a renewal that continues today when he graduates from the University of New Mexico with his bachelor’s degree in psychology.

“I took the long, not-so-scenic road,” the 40-year-old said. “But I’m blessed.”

Cervantes has already burrowed into master’s coursework through a special program at UNM’s Anderson School of Management and could have his MBA by December. Now he talks about starting his own nonprofit recovery center and perhaps parlaying his finance education into a job at an investment firm.

“I’m an asset to society, which I haven’t been for a long, long time. … A year ago, my life was a complete disaster,” he said. “It’s hard to (believe). It’s almost like a movie I watched. It’s almost like another life.”

Long in the making

Nobody who knew a young Jaime Cervantes would have expected graduation day to be this long in the making.

He was an ace student in his Los Angeles high school. First chair trumpet in the school band. A self-described “nerd” who requested an encyclopedia for Christmas when he was 8.

Jaime Cervantes, center, is shown at UNM’s Hispanic-focused Raza graduation event last week with his parents, Jose and Maria. (Courtesy of Jaime Cervantes)

His father, Jose Cervantes, said Jaime, the eldest of his three kids, had “all kinds of choices” for college. Jose envisioned his sharp, charming son one day becoming a professor or holding elected office.

“I would just (see) him engage people in such a way that I knew that he had something special,” Jose Cervantes said.

Jose, a Mexican immigrant who came to the U.S. at 17 without a high school education and earned a living as a printer, assumed Jaime would finish college in four years, becoming the first member of the family to earn a bachelor’s degree.

Jaime assumed the same thing, but life took a turn at UCLA. Just weeks into his freshman year, a pretty, older girl took him to a party. He tried cocaine. Things rapidly escalated. UCLA dismissed him before he finished his first year, and he left school with little more than a burgeoning drug dependency.

Cervantes said he could still talk his way into good jobs, like a writing gig for a prominent boxing magazine. He eventually earned an associate’s degree from a California community college. He even got clean a few times.

Problems returned

And when he followed love to New Mexico four years ago, he saw it as a fresh start. He married. He enrolled at UNM. But his problems stormed back.

“When I got here, it got worse,” he said. “Next thing I knew, I was addicted to just about everything: heroin, meth, prescription pills.”

He quit going to class, separated from his wife, plumbed newer depths.

But last June, following his Santa Fe arrest, Cervantes decided he’d had enough.

When the court ordered him to six months of recovery, he asked for a year instead. He entered Under His Construction, a faith-based residential program in Albuquerque’s South Valley. Chris Cleveland, the organization’s vice president, let Cervantes return to UNM earlier than would have been customary in the recovery process. Cleveland said he thought it was the only way to keep him in the program.

Indeed, Cervantes craved a return to the place he had always thrived: school.

“I really thought ‘I want to go back to school. If I go to this program, I want to be there for a year so that I can complete (my degree). I’m not leaving that program until I graduate UNM,’ ” Cervantes recalls. “I decided I was sick of living like that.”

Credits his faith

Cervantes credits his faith for restoring his self-worth and saving his life.

It’s not the first time he has been clean, but he said this feels different. He pursued a well-rounded recovery that includes a mentor, a 12-step program, and took his mental, physical and emotional health into account.

School also helped renew and repair him. He returned to classes he had not finished during the height of his addiction and made As. He found a therapist on campus, and took a Zumba class for his physical well-being. He found a support network at UNM to match the one he established away from it, including professors who have encouraged him to share his story with others.

He committed to graduating, said Erick Rodriguez, a senior academic adviser at UNM’s Anderson School of Management. Cervantes had confided in Rodriguez early in his UNM experience and even called him from jail.

“I think it was always in the back of his head: ‘I’ve got to (graduate). I can’t let everyone down. It has already taken me this long to do it, so I definitely want to finish it,’ ” Rodriguez said.

While UNM’s formal commencement isn’t until today, Cervantes’ celebration has already begun. His parents came in from California last week to watch him at UNM’s Raza graduation event.

Jose Cervantes called it a thrill.

‘A wonderful feeling’

“It feels like we’re on the other side; we made it as a family. He made it. It’s just a wonderful feeling,” Jose Cervantes said.

Cervantes is scheduled to graduate from his recovery program next month and said he feels like he has emerged from a time capsule. He wants to do the things most people do at a younger age, including start a family. (He and his ex-wife are reconciling and plan to remarry this summer.)

“If the future is anything like this year has been, I think I’m going to be all right,” he said. “I can still have a hell of a life.”

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