CAMDEN, NJ—The path to a high school graduation was not an easy one for Pablita Malave, who after losing her great grandmother, and then her best friend at the age 14, began to lose hope.

“As a child I was well known for having a smile on my face and being very happy and outgoing,” said Malave, 19. As time went on, she told the packed auditorium at Camden County College, “that smile started to fade away … instead of being able to focus on my future, I had to worry about just surviving the present,” she said.

It got to the point where the pain and the loss became too much to bear, she said.

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“I had two ways to go — I was going to end everything, or I was going to get the help I needed. I started to get the help. I put my future on hold,” Malave said.

Malave, along with her 59 classmates, can now take their futures off hold after graduating from Camden County College’s Gateway to College program on Thursday, June 21.

The Gateway to College program is a dual credit program which enables disengaged youth to earn their high school diploma and college credits on a college campus. The program is supported by the Camden City and Pennsauken School District, the Gateway to College National Network, Camden County College and the state.

This year’s class, dubbed the “Sensational 60” by keynote speaker Rochelle Hendricks, was the largest class yet to graduate from the program, according its director Irvin Sweeney.

Sweeney said the 54 of the students were from Camden City School District, five from the Pennsauken School District, and one student from LEAP Academy.

The program, in its seventh year, has now graduated over 300 students who once had dropped out of high school, said Sweeney.

“There are many students here who had never thought this day would be possible. Some had to overcome the challenges associated with homelessness, illness, crime, parenting, working two jobs to support their family and conflicts with the judicial system,” said Sweeney.

“This is a program that understands what real opportunity means. This is a program that’s not content to simply beat the odds, this is a program that chooses to change the odds,” said Hendricks, secretary emeritus of higher education for the state.

According to Sweeney, over 80 percent of the graduating students are either enlisted in the military or attended college after graduation.

Malave will be apart of the third cohort of students to go through the Rowan University Rutgers Camden Board of Governors Medical Assistants Training Program, it was announced in press release earlier this month.

The Camden Gateway received the Gateway to College National Network Program Excellence Award twice for attaining the highest graduation rate nationwide and exceeding the network’s performance benchmarks.

Recently, the program won the Equity Trailblazers Award by the Department of Higher Education as well, and according to Sweeney, will receive its third National Network Program Excellence Award this summer.