As she smiled out at the audience and accepted the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning's Learner of the Year award Nov. 9, Monique Nobriga felt like pinching herself. Was she really here, in Chicago, speaking to all of these people at CAEL's 2011 convention about her nearly straight-A college education, her plans to go to graduate school and become a licensed clinical social worker and her son Enrique, 7, who was waiting for her back home in Whittier, Calif.?
A lot happened to Nobriga in the last seven years. She kicked a 20-plus-year heroin habit, started community college with help from the state rehab center and gained full custody of Enrique from the California child welfare authorities. She earned her associates degree and then, realizing she needed more education to achieve the career she now felt was her destiny, she applied for an AARP Foundation Women's scholarship and won it two years in a row. That helped pay for her last two years of undergraduate studies at Cal State Los Angeles. She will graduate in June 2012 and plans to go to graduate school to become a certified counselor.
Nobriga had an early start on adult life. "My dad was an alcoholic, and his rule was it was OK to do anything you wanted as long as you could handle yourself. I knew by the time I was 4 years old how much I loved alcohol and, by the time I was 7, I was taking swigs out of the liquor bottle in the refrigerator. I never told anyone, including my friends.
"By the time I was 10, I'd started doing a lot of downers — Quaaludes, reds. I'd go to school with bruises and broken blood vessels on my face — my elementary school pictures show them. And by then, if my dad came home and didn't like what my mom had cooked for dinner, he'd take the whole thing and throw it on the wall."
By the time she was a teenager, Nobriga had had enough of the abuse. She left home, moving in with a 36-year-old man whose kids she had babysat. "I thought I was all grown up," she says ruefully. Their son, Aaron, was born when she was 19; they separated shortly after.
The next 20 years flew by. She tried different jobs — truck-driving, cashiering, working for a credit corporation — a couple of new relationships and one or two different drugs, but heroin always won out. Her younger son, Enrique, was born in March 2004 and immediately taken from her by the Department of Child and Family Services. "I was with his father at the time and we were both loaded — I didn't know what to do," she says. "I went to court for nine months and it finally got to the point where they were going to put him in an adoptive home. That woke me up at last."
Next: Monique's next step >>