ALEXANDRIA, La. (AP) — Group projects, 10-page papers, all-night study sessions — these are common in a college graduate's journey to commencement. But some go through much more to get there.

When Justin Lafleur was 23 years old he was in his final semester of college, just a few months and some tests away from being a nurse.

Then his mom died suddenly.

He immediately packed up and left the University of Louisiana at Monroe to head home to Ville Platte.

"I didn't even take finals," Lafleur said.

His mom had been sick, but the death was shocking. He came home to join his dad and younger sister in facing this grief.

"Within three months she was pregnant and my dad lost his job," Lafleur said. "It was that kind of implosion."

He worked to help to pay the bills, and having not finished his nursing degree, he headed to a community college in Opelousas to become an licensed practical nurse.

That's where he met his wife, got married and graduated.

They have three children, but almost had four. The last pregnancy was supposed to be twins, but one of the babies didn't make it.

From the loss of his mom to the loss of his child, it had only been a few years. The grief was too much.

"I fell into alcoholism and drug addiction," Lafleur said. "At this point, I'm not working, I'm not really functioning, my wife is carrying the load."

The family staged an intervention, and Lafleur went to the Acadiana Addiction Center for four months of treatment.

When he got out, he worked as a dish-washer in a restaurant for about a year. Then he got the opportunity to work at the addiction center and help others like him.

"I needed to do this with my life," he said. "... Nobody understands an addict or alcoholic like an addict or alcoholic."

He started as a substance abuse technician — the lowest position on the totem pole, he said — moved up to admissions and now is the alumni services manager.

He's been there four years now. He's been sober six and a half.

But something has been missing. He decided about a year into working at AAC that he needed a bachelor's degree.

"I was so afraid to go back (to school) because of my age," Lafleur said. He was 35.

So he tried an online course at Louisiana State University of Alexandria. Although it took him a while to adjust to the online format — something he didn't try back in his 20s — he got an A.

That gave him the confidence to try again. He took two classes the next semester and worked up to 19 hours this spring.

After years of online and on-campus classes, he graduated May 10 in Alexandria with a bachelor's in psychology. He's part of the school's largest graduating class with 266 graduates.

His family watched as he crossed the stage. His sister, now a veterinarian, was there along with aunts, uncles and his wife and three girls.

They checked the kids out of school to watch the morning ceremony.

"They need to see what Daddy's been working so hard on," Lafleur said.

He'll put his degree to use as a substance abuse counselor at AAC, now located in Sunset.

But he won't stop there. Next on the horizon is LSU Shreveport, where he'll work toward becoming a physician's assistant.

___

Information from: The Advertiser, http://www.theadvertiser.com