Grace Anderson’s road to graduation took a terrible turn five years ago when she crashed her car pretty badly near Livingston while driving drunk.

“I was lucky I wasn’t killed,” she said. “I very easily could have been killed or hurt somebody else.”

With a DUI, Anderson realized her drinking problem had become self-destructive and scary. It had started when she was a student at Billings Senior High School and spiraled out of control after her boyfriend’s suicide. She was an alcoholic and needed help.

“I was 21 when I got sober,” Anderson said. “I was afraid I wouldn’t live to 30.”

When she reached out for help at Montana State University, help was there. Counselor Rick Winking connected her with five fellow students recovering from addiction to drugs or alcohol, who ran the new Center for Recovering Students in one of the tiny old Monopoly houses west of campus.

“A lot of them had made it through, they’d done it,” she said. “They gave me some light — and helped me with my math homework and always had a hot pot of coffee. They’d say, ‘I know it is hard but you can make it through.’”

Some 2,000 MSU students will graduate Saturday and most have had to overcome challenges. This is the story of three graduates – Grace Anderson, Marques Ceasar-Lopez and Mikayla Pitts – who got to graduation through their own grit and determination, as well as a little help from their friends and families.

Recovery

Anderson, 25, dropped out of MSU twice. Yet today she has completely turned her life around.

She retook classes she’d failed. She applied again to the School of Architecture, which had rejected her because of poor grades, and in 2016 received an acceptance letter.

She devoted enormous energy to getting the word out across campus that there is hope for students fighting addiction. She spoke to more than 2,000 students in classes, raised money for the Center for Recovering Students, taught minor-in-possession classes to underage students caught drinking and joined the Gallatin County DUI Task Force.

She even ran for Homecoming queen in 2017 to spread idea that “recovery is not something to be ashamed of.”

Anderson worked with Winking, director of the INSIGHT alcohol and drug assistance program, and Marci Torres, health advancement director, to find a better, dedicated space for the Center for Recovering Students.

Today the recovery center uses one side of the small house at 1106 S. Sixth Ave., near the Hannon lawn, and about 25 students hang out there. They hold Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, do homework, drink coffee, watch basketball games and support each other.

“It’s kind of an oasis,” Anderson said. “Campus can be incredibly isolating when you’re trying to get sober, or have a big secret you can’t tell classmates — that you’re trying to get sober or stop using drugs.”

Since Montana has some of the highest DUI and suicide rates in the nation, she sees MSU as “one of the greatest ways to change the culture that’s killing Montanans.”

“One of the hardest things for people our age is that people don’t believe you could be an alcoholic at 20 years of age,” she said. “They say, ‘You’re too young’ or ‘That’s what college drinking looks like.’

“It’s embarrassing. Families don’t want people to know,” she said, and that stigma puts up barriers to seeking help. “People think addiction is a moral failing. It’s an illness.”

Anderson said she’s not sure why she became an alcoholic. She had a wonderful childhood, a wonderful family. She grew up helping her Dad in the summers run a combine, cutting hay and wheat on a farm near Roundup.

Drinking just gave her a buzz, a feeling of relief, she said. “I’m one of those people, when I’ve started, I can’t stop.”

For her extensive volunteer work, Anderson won in 2017 the Septimviri award given to seven outstanding MSU juniors, and last year President Waded Cruzado nominated her for the Newman Civic Award.

Today she will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in environmental design. Around her neck she’ll wear a teal and black cord, a new symbol created by MSU to honor recovering graduates.

“It’s like any honor society,” she said. “We can wear something publicly, in solidarity and recognition by MSU as something to be proud of.”

For her, alcohol “is just not tempting anymore,” she said. “My life is far more exciting and interesting and meaningful than it ever was when I was drinking.”

She plans to move to Virginia to be with her Navy boyfriend and search for jobs with architectural firms.

“I have my entire life ahead of me,” Anderson said. “I feel incredibly grateful to get the help I needed.”

True passion

Marques Ceasar-Lopez, 22, decided to venture outside his home state of Colorado to attend college at MSU for the chance to major in chemistry and find greater independence.

Yet as the school year wore on, he said, “the stress kept building. I found myself more in the music building.”

He would unwind by playing the tuba — the big brass instrument he had played since seventh grade.

“I’ve fallen in love with the instrument,” said Ceasar-Lopez, holding his 40-pound, silver-plated, German-made orchestra tuba in a music room in MSU’s Howard Hall.

“It can be brassy and bombastic, or it can produce one of the most beautiful sounds I know. It gives me a natural high.”

Playing music felt “more right than working in a lab,” he said. “It brings me true happiness.”

In his sophomore year he talked seriously with his music professor Jeannie Little — should he change his major? Yes, she said, if you’re willing to put in the hard work.

Ceasar-Lopez knew it would take a lot of grit — a quality he’d seen in his hard-working parents.

“I’m very determined to make it work,” he said. “It’s very difficult for any musician to get a job, to make a living.”

Still, after switching majors, he said, “I couldn’t be happier. I think it’s one of the best decisions I could have made.”

Ceasar-Lopez faced his biggest challenges when he spread himself too thin — playing in six ensembles, including the Bozeman Symphony, rehearsing late each day and working two jobs, while trying to keep up with schoolwork. At times he was exhausted.

“Being on my own for the first time, away from my family, made me stronger as a person,” he said. “A couple times made me wonder if I was going to make it through.”

Two things helped – playing music and instructors like Little, Sarah Stonebeck and Nathan Stark. “They were always there for me and I appreciate it more than anything.”

Ceasar-Lopez enjoyed success with the Bridger Brass quintet, a student group he formed with four other music majors — two trumpet players, one French horn player and one trombonist. They traveled to Orlando, Florida, last year for the Music Teachers National Association national finals chamber music competition. This month they’re invited to the International Women’s Brass Conference in Tempe, Arizona.

He also traveled with the MSU Wind Symphony to the 2017 Sousa Band Festival at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. One piece they performed was the “Rocky Mountain Elk Suite” by MSU professor Greg Young.

“I actually got to play an elk call in the Kennedy Center,” Ceasar-Lopez said and laughed.

Still, music is a tough business. He auditioned last month with the Billings Symphony, competing against 10 tuba players for one opening and didn’t win the job. And he’s still paying off his $15,000 loan to buy his professional quality tuba.

When Ceasar-Lopez graduates today, family members from Colorado, Texas and California will be there to cheer him on. They’ll celebrate with a dinner at Montana Ale Works, where he usually works as a cook.

And the next day, he will join the MSU Symphony Orchestra on a trip to Chili to perform and tour for 10 days.

Picking MSU was “absolutely” the right choice, he said. The music school is “amazing” and gave him opportunities he wouldn’t have at a larger school. He’s learned how to get gigs and negotiate contracts and traveled all over the country.

Music, Ceasar-Lopez said, “is one of the few things I’ve found true passion and true happiness from. I figure if I’m going to live life here I might as well do it to be happy, and not just make money.”

Role model

Mikayla Pitts, 25, grew up in Bakersfield, California, and came to Montana six years ago when she was recruited to play women’s basketball for Little Big Horn College on the Crow Indian Reservation. Pitts said she has a little native blood from the Muscogee Creek tribe of Oklahoma, where she was born.

“I played two years,” said Pitts, who is 5-foot-10. “It was a great experience.”

But Pitts had a tough time when she transferred to the MSU Billings campus. She had injured her knee, had surgery and finally stopped playing basketball.

“I felt I was lost,” Pitts said. “That was a real low point in my life. I was very depressed. I was trying to figure out who I was. For 10 years my identity had been basketball.”

In 2015, she took a year off school and became an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer on the Flathead Indian Reservation. There she worked with hundreds of kids in the Boys and Girls Club. She volunteered to coach a middle-school girls’ team in Ronan.

“That was the best experience I ever had,” she said. “Out of the 10 years I played basketball it was the most I felt alive.”

In 2016 Pitts enrolled at the Bozeman campus as a junior majoring in community health.

“I believe something has always been bringing me to Bozeman,” Pitts said.

Her grandmother, who has two master’s degrees, including one in public health, inspired her to choose the major.

Being a black woman on a mostly white campus was not hard, she said.

“What’s challenging is people’s assumptions about black women because of stereotypes they see on TV,” she said. “A lot of people are very shocked that my parents and grandmother and uncle all have master’s degrees.”

At MSU Pitts has been involved with a health research project that brought her back to the Crow Reservation where she once played basketball.

Under her mentor, professor Susan Held, she has worked with the Messengers for Health program, which helps people learn to manage their own chronic illnesses like diabetes. Pitts’ research focused on finding the most effective and culturally appropriate ways to recruit members of the Crow tribe to the program.

“I love this work so much,” Pitts said.

She has been accepted into MSU’s graduate program, and plans after graduation to keep working with Messengers for Health.

At MSU she also got involved with McNair Scholars, and traveled to present her research at a McNair conference in New York.

She was a leader with the Body Project, teaching girls to love their bodies and “overcome the ideal of being thin.”

“I tell girls you just need to love yourself,” Pitts said. “Talk about internal things. Do you have a kind heart, are you strong?”

She is excited about graduating today. Flying out to be here are her parents, siblings, uncles — and her grandmother.

“My Granny has always been important in my life,” she said. “She is my role model.”

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2633. Follow her on Twitter @gailnews.

Gail Schontzler covers schools and Montana State University for the Chronicle.

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