Members of Rowan College of South Jersey–Cumberland's platform party smile and applaud for Kareem Rutledge as he walks across the stage to receive his diploma at the College's 4th Annual Commencement Ceremony.
Rowan College of South Jersey (RCSJ) students are cut from a different cloth; when adversity attempts to impede their progress, they have proven time and again they will take extraordinary steps to achieve success. You can add Kareem Rutledge, Jr., to this ever-expanding list of courageous individuals. After suffering from a traumatic brain injury five years ago, there was no guarantee he would even be alive today.
On the morning of Sunday, April 1, 2018, Rutledge was at his mom Tyeesha’s house in Delaware preparing for an Easter church service. He never made it there.
“My mom found me at the bottom of the stairs with blood dripping out of my ears and I was seizing, unconscious,” Rutledge recalled. “They don’t know if I went up and fell back or if I just stood up too fast and passed out. We’re never going to know, probably.”
Before that fateful moment, Rutledge, a Swedesboro resident, was an honors student at Kingsway Regional High School in Gloucester County and was also active in sports. He played basketball, football, and ran track during his high school career.
Rutledge’s goal was to become a chemical engineer and had already received several scholarships to attend the University of Delaware, ranked one of the top engineering schools in the country. “I loved chemistry” he said. “It made sense [to go there].”
The brain injury put a sudden halt to those plans. After 911 was called, an ambulance rushed him to Christiana Hospital. Rutledge’s ordeal was just beginning. The doctors performed a cranioplasty as well as a tracheotomy in hopes of keeping him alive.
“While in the hospital, I had a small stroke,” Rutledge revealed. “They had to take the top of my skull off to relieve the pressure [on my brain]. I was in a coma for a while. It was a medically induced coma.
“I could have died in surgery.”
Thankfully, Rutledge survived. After emerging from his coma, Rutledge noted how confused and bewildered he felt about the situation he was in. “It was a blur,” he explained.
“…[M]y mom told me stories. Since I wasn’t able to talk, she had this little writing pad to write on. [S]he said she would try to play tic tac toe with me, and I just drew the line – [and] the line, like, just kept going.”
“It was like I wasn’t there mentally,” Rutledge said. “Yeah, it was sad. That broke her down.”
In the aftermath of suffering multiple health ordeals, Rutledge began the arduous journey of relearning how to walk, talk, and eat with the help of physical therapy at Jefferson Moss-Magee Rehabilitation Hospital in Philadelphia.
“During the whole inpatient time … I was in a wheelchair,” said Rutledge. “I couldn’t even sit up, like I’m sitting right now. I would just fall over.”
“And for food, I couldn’t swallow,” he continued. “I was eating puree for a long period. Then after puree, I could do solids.”
Relearning how to walk was a considerable challenge for Rutledge. “I had leg braces [and] ankle foot orthotics. They went basically from my hip all the way down to my leg and under my foot,” he said. “Then they used this machine called the Andago – it basically walked for me.”
Rutledge’s family leaned on their faith in God which helped them establish a sturdy support system for him during his travails. His stepmom was a particularly powerful force in helping him to literally stand on his own two feet again.
According to Rutledge, during his physical therapy, which also included many intense and excruciating hours attempting to walk using parallel bars for support, his stepmom constantly implored him to summon his inner strength. Her words of encouragement ultimately sunk in.
“I began to realize I could walk,” said Rutledge. “Then I walked.”
When asked what it was like relearning how to talk: “That was weird because I love to talk,” Rutledge replied, with a chuckle. “I had to take speech therapy.”
His healing treatments also consisted of cognitive therapy and art therapy. “Art therapy was a godsend,” Rutledge proclaimed. “I already loved art. There were no rules. You just do it. No boundaries to it.”
According to Rutledge, after 40 days and 40 nights of rehab, he was able to go home. “I felt like if God allowed me to get this far, I knew that He’d allow me to do even greater things.”
Although his life would never be the same, by 2020, Rutledge had regained most of his verbal and ambulatory abilities. His father and stepmom, with their faith intact, gave their son a choice: get a job or go to college. He chose to pursue his education.
“It seemed most realistic because that’s what I was going to do … prior to the accident,” Rutledge said. “I still wanted to learn because I like learning. I was like this is just not an obstacle. It’s not going to stop me from getting my piece of paper, if you will.”
At this point, Rutledge’s dream of attending the University of Delaware had faded like photographs in shattered glass. He and his family did some research and looked for the college that would best suit his needs and aspirations. They concluded RCSJ–Cumberland was the school that would help him find his fit.
“Their disability services were off the chain,” Rutledge declared. “Miss Meredith Vicente … helped us out a lot. That’s basically why I ended up going there. Even though it was so far – I had to take Access Link to get to one class that I took on campus.”
Vicente, senior director,
Student Accessibility and Support Services
, mentioned Rutledge, like other students with disabilities at RCSJ, had access to several accommodations to help him succeed as a student including: testing in a distraction-reduced environment; use of text-to-speech and dictation software; flexibility with attendance policy and assignment due dates; note taking assistance, and more.
“Kareem also could request individualized tutoring, academic coaching, and audio versions of his textbooks,” Vicente said.
Rutledge, and his family, were confident they made the correct decision by selecting the Cumberland County school. He became a
student and expressed gratitude for the assistance he received.
“The coaching was just something no other colleges have,” said Rutledge. “And the tutoring – just having that readily available. And then the accommodations. My [professors] helped out a lot. It’s like they meet you where you’re at.”
During his time at RCSJ, he became president of the Faith Fellowship Club (FFC). “It felt great because I felt like it was almost like my calling,” Rutledge shared. The position gave him a chance to “be a leader and influence other people and … to see God move throughout the club and [on] the campus in general.”
“Kareem was an outstanding president for the club,” said Michele Zakian, advisor, FFC, RCSJ–Cumberland. “He became the FFC president during the Covid pandemic which is fitting because he has a transitional leadership style. After Kareem became president, he used his personal experiences and knowledge to inspire the club to expand our focus to include more faith enrichment and expression opportunities for current members.”
Five years after his near-death experience, Rutledge’s grit, determination, perseverance, and faith in a higher power culminated in that magical moment. Unsurprisingly, Vicente, Zakian, and the rest of the RCSJ family were beyond ecstatic that Rutledge was able to receive his degree.
“I am extremely proud of Kareem and all that he has accomplished here at Cumberland,” said Zakian, who is also an administrative assistant, Student Services, RCSJ–Cumberland.
“It takes a lot of persistence and hard work for anyone to graduate and when you have disabilities it is that much harder,” Vicente added. “Not only do you need to be persistent and work extra hard, you [also] need to be a staunch self-advocate to ensure you are getting the accommodations and support…
“Kareem advocated for himself well, used the resources and support available to him, and was a student leader on campus. I could not be prouder!”
“Honestly, it was a miracle,” said Rutledge, who was also a member of the first-ever RCSJ–Cumberland student Cornhole championship team in 2023. “I wasn’t on this road at all. It’s like a whole bunch of curveballs and stuff; detours, and whatnot. But the goal was the same as when I graduated high school.
“It’s just another step and I’m excited for the next steps to come.”
Rutledge’s family members were first-hand witnesses to the trials and tribulations he had encountered to make it onto that graduation stage. They were there to support him on that special day.
“They were really … emotional because they saw me where I was and then where I’m at now,” said Rutledge. “It just took a lot out of them. Of course, it should because … I could have died. I graduated! It’s almost like a fairy tale ending – but it’s not over.”
Rutledge’s plans consist of majoring in Human Services at Southeastern University, running a 5K race, becoming a motivational speaker, and sharing his story in hopes of inspiring others to never give up on their dreams no matter what obstacles are placed in their paths.
“...[T]he cards were stacked against me. If I did it, you can definitely do it. Because everybody has a story. It’s just how you rise to the occasion and get what you want,” Rutledge said. “I want to just help people [who] have been through things I’ve been through or just need some, not motivation, but just need help.”
As we wrapped up the interview, Rutledge wanted to express one final thought he had been reflecting upon.
“I was in a wheelchair. People don’t just jump out of wheelchairs and just start walking. God did it all. That’s a big piece of it. That’s where a lot of motivation came from,” Rutledge explained.
“I’m supposed to show what God did through me and show people what God can do. He still does miracles and I’m going to improve.”