In a typical undergraduate class at UNM, you may hear chatter about who did the reading, and if it’s a boxed mac & cheese, or ramen kind of night back at the apartment with your roommate. 

Sitting right there though, could be a 42-year-old rockstar of a woman, who not only did the reading, and then some, but also just finished working on her own business and meal prepping for five.

That’s Liliana Spurgeon, graduating this spring with her Bachelor’s of Science in Psychology and Bachelor’s of Arts in Spanish. 

“I have had so many ups and downs. It's a lot of pride. I picked up my cap and gown a couple of weeks ago, and I was just crying all the way home. Every time I see that cap and gown hanging, I'm like: ‘oh, my God, I did this,’” Spurgeon said.

It’s an understatement to say Spurgeon is a strong person. Her strength was instilled in her from a very young age, by two migrants who wanted to give her the life they never had.

“My dad always told us that he came to this country to physically wear himself out so we don't have to. So he said ‘I need you to go to college. I need you to pursue higher education,’ and I did. So I grew up with that American dream of if you pursue education, you're going to succeed,” she said.

Despite a dislike for speaking English in the household, Spurgeon learned the language at age seven. She went through the same grade school trajectory as many others in Albuquerque, earned her associate’s degree in financial services, and began to establish a career. Still, a long stretch of challenges began for Spurgeon, once she became diagnosed with Lupus.

On top of this autoimmune disease, she had to undergo multiple knee surgeries, during a time when opioids were the go-to for medical institutions and pharmacies. Spurgeon fell to something millions of people in the U.S. did–opioid use disorder.

“Everybody was prescribing it. I don't want to say I was a victim, but I was one of the casualties of that,” she said. “It stopped my life very much. I became very focused on just staying home, not working. My life just became stagnant,” she said.

Being addicted to opioids was a terrible calamity on its own. Tragedy began to spin its web through Spurgeon’s life during that same period, when her husband ran into health troubles of his own.

“It turns out he had a cavity infection that went untreated and it got into his blood system. He died of sepsis at 34. That was awful to say the least,” she said. “It was really hard and my youngest was six and my oldest was 13. When your world just crumbles around you, you're like,  what am I supposed to do?”

Losing him to sepsis at just 34, with two young boys left to raise alone, was an undertaking Spurgeon knew she needed to be fully equipped to do. After a phone call to her family, she made the brave leap towards rehab.

Liliana and family

“I realized during that time that my pill addiction needed to stop in order for me to be able to move forward. I could easily just fall into that grief trap. Granted, I did for a good while,” she said. “Then there was this moment of clarity where I was like, I need to go to treatment. I need to do something. I can't be on this medication, and at the same time try to raise two boys into men.”

Weaning off of drugs is no simple task. Opioids especially, have killed over 100,000 people, with their level of addictive properties.

“I just knew I had a physical addiction where if I didn't take my medication, I'd start getting sick, which were withdrawals. I didn't know the extent of how much my mind and my emotions were tied to that,” Spurgeon said.

Unfortunately, despite her commitment, and over a month in a top facility in California, the temptation of opioid use, or alcohol use, trickled back in when she received a call no one wants to get. Five months almost to the day that Spurgeon lost her husband, she lost her father.

“I get a call from my mom saying that my dad had a massive heart attack in Albuquerque. I was like, no, this can't be happening. He was the one who was going to help me raise my boys,” Spurgeon said. “I had a moment, where I thought: ‘I have another reason for me to start using again or even start taking up drinking. Do I do it, or really make an effort to change my life?’”

With the support of her friends, Megan and Elise, her sons, Gael and Rocco, and her sponsor Danielle, and her own personal motivation, Spurgeon took two steps forward and no steps back. It began with counseling for the whole family, and a look towards the future.

“Two years into it, I decided I should try school. I should try to see if my brain can handle school. UNM always really intimidated me like with the whole admissions process. I didn't think I was smart enough to do school here,” Spurgeon said.

The next great mountain for her to climb was none other than the University of New Mexico. She was intimidated by New Mexico’s flagship university, but had Danielle to help her push the submit on the application button.

“She called me and she told me: ‘bring your computer, we are going to do your admissions for UNM–no more playing around.’ It was like this big goal that was unachievable, especially with how beat down I felt by that time. My identity had been stripped away,” she said. “If it wasn't for her, I wouldn't have done it. I would have brought up every excuse possible not to do it.”

As a Lobo, but also a mom and a recovering addict, it was not always smooth sailing once she sat down in Logan Hall.

“I always felt like it was this illusion or this mirage, right? Being like an older student, taking classes in person, I always felt different. I was that one person that when the instructor would ask: ‘did anybody read the material for this week?’ I was the first one to say I did it. Everybody else was like, ‘nerd.’” – Liliana Spurgeon

Regardless, Spurgeon remained incredibly studious. She maintained a nearly perfect G.P.A., earned a scholarship from the National Latino Behavioral Health Association, pell grants, and was a part of the UNM Collegiate Recovery Center with Marni Goldberg.

“It was for any student in recovery that wanted extra support during their time on campus. I helped maintain that for a while. Unfortunately it kind of fizzled out because she left UNM, but I still have a big connection with her,” Spurgeon said.

This was all while still finding time to dance in the kitchen, while her sons created the music.

Liliana and kids

“My oldest is into the EDM scene right now. He even bought himself some turntables. My youngest wanted to play piano, so he taught himself with a yard sale keyboard. Now he’s trying to teach himself guitar,” she said. “I will just be dancing in the kitchen to it while I'm cooking, like a typical Mexican mom. That's my happy place. I love music.”

She also found something unexpected along the way–a new partner and cheerleader for her career, education and family.

“My partner, Evan has been the person I needed the most to know that I'm able to do this. He was making sure that the rest of my life was manageable in order for me to be able to focus on this,” Spurgeon said. “This man is amazing. He supports me in everything. He's just like: ‘sure, go do it. What do you need from me?’”

It should be no surprise to anyone reading this that Spurgeon is nowhere near done with her impressive juggling act. Next on the docket: giving back to the Latina and Latino community.

“Since I got clean, I noticed that a lot of people like me aren't represented. There's not a lot of us Latinos in the recovery spaces. We don't speak a lot about that,” she said. “There's a lot of stigma in the Latino community about addiction, so I decided to take that route just to start supporting that field.”

Bilingual Hearts Consulting’s goal is to coach different agencies to guide members of the Latino community battling addiction through workshops and more. 

“We're very family oriented, we are a very collective community. Families don't always know how to help their loved ones. We want to be that resource. How do we help each other create a better world? We want to make sure we have resources and services that help people in identifying and feeling like this is possible for them–that there are people who look like them who've done it and so they can do it also,” Spurgeon said.

The company also properly translates guides related to addiction, or other mental health crises. That impressive compilation of services has already earned Bilingual Hearts Consulting a year-long contract with New Mexico State University.

“We want to point it out, but also come with the solution. We know there is a discrepancy in services and resources for our community, but we're here to help. We call ourselves cultural brokers because we have a foot in American culture, but we also have a foot in our Mexican heritage,” Spurgeon said.

Businesswoman, advocate, mom, and survivor. Liliana Spurgeon has done it all, and now, can officially add alumni to the docket.

“It was about being comfortable with being uncomfortable, right?” she said. “I can achieve a lot more than I think I can. I know I can do certain things, but this was like that challenge of: let's really see if you can do it, and I did.”