Shannon Qualters

By Lini S. Kadaba

When Shannon Qualters ’23 hit bottom, the survivor of child sexual abuse was hooked on heroin and crack cocaine, living on the streets of the Kensington section of Philadelphia and eating out of garbage cans, by her own account. To support her habit, she said she was forced to sell her body and spent many years in and out of the prison system.

“I lost everything,” the 38-year-old mother of four said. “Death looked more appealing than living at that point.”

The universe, though, can work in mysterious ways. In 2016, Qualters was once again released from prison, this time to a recovery program where she finally found the will to kick her habit and, crucially, her way to Alvernia University’s location in Philadelphia. In May, she graduated magna cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts in Addictions and Mental Health Treatment and took a job as the after-care coordinator for Malvern Treatment Centers in Philadelphia.

“Alvernia just boosted my self-esteem to the highest power,” said Qualters, who lives with her wife, Kris, and children in a Gloucester Township, N.J., house she purchased last year. “It gave me a sense of hope.”

Alvernia’s 45-year-old Addictions and Mental Health Treatment program, considered the oldest continuous one of its kind in the country, is designed with adult learners in mind, according to director David Reyher. That means evening classes for working students and flexibility with assignments when life gets messy, he said. The program, like the university, is imbued with Franciscan values, including a deep understanding of how others feel.

“It’s much more than imparting information from a textbook to a person,” Reyher said. “It’s a way of being. It’s all about empathy. We have to practice what we teach. When people like Shannon show up and give their heart and soul, it’s incumbent on us to reciprocate. What she experienced was that empathy and support.”

“All my life, Alvernia is the only thing I started and finished. They believed in me when no one else did.”

Qualters began taking classes toward a master’s degree at another college. But, she said, she soon missed the support Alvernia afforded adult students. In January, Qualters transferred back to Alvernia to complete her master’s degree with the goal of opening a recovery house for women coming out of prison.

“Alvernia has become my new family,” she said. “I’ve always looked for validation in the streets, struggled so long. I wanted to be loved, valued, feel a part of. Alvernia made me feel a part of.”

It also gave her the knowledge to use her own experiences to help others.

“I know what it’s like to sit in these chairs,” she said she tells clients. “I know what it’s like to feel hopeless. I know what it feels like to think you’re all alone.”

Given her past struggles, few would have expected the eighth-grade dropout to thrive at college. But Qualters said her determination — along with the support of her children, wife, best friend Paula, family, and Alvernia professors and staff — got her through.

During her last semester, she struggled to find the funds for tuition. The university stepped up and offered Qualters the Newcombe Scholarship, which supports mature women students who need financial aid to complete their education.

“All my life,” she said, “Alvernia is the only thing I started and finished. They believed in me when no one else did.”

Addictions and Mental Health Treatment

Degree Type:
Bachelor of Arts
College of Humanities, Education, and Social Sciences
  • Reading Campus
Program Type:
Undergraduate Major
Credit Hours:
Also available as a minor