Early College program pays off for Amesbury High School grads

Lyanh Harding took college courses at Amesbury High School in the Early College program, enabling her to graduate early from college.

AMESBURY — AHS class of 2012 graduate Lyanh Harding has a simple message for those high school students about to join her in the real world.

“I know you see yourself having success in the future and you just want to party and hang out,” Harding said. “But if everyone could just take a second and think about it, this is the best decision you are ever going to make.”

Along with her now-boyfriend Mike Zielinski, Harding was a member of Amesbury High School’s first Early College program back in their sophomore year. Early College brings in professors from Northern Essex Community College who teach students from sophomores to seniors a total of three core courses, equaling nine college credits a year.

“It was very integrated into the regular daily schedule,” Harding said. “We got the syllabus normally given in (the professor’s) college course; it was definitely an adjustment. He wasn’t used to the level of attention we had. In college there is more of a self-motivation; in high school there is none. It was an adjustment for the professors and the students. But if you stuck to the routine, it was just a routine.”

Harding not only stuck to the routine, she excelled, finishing with the full program during her senior year. It was when she got to Emmanuel College for her freshman year of college that she realized just how much of an advantage the program had given her.

“The other students were more stressed than I was,” Harding said. “They had to find out how to study, how they were going to succeed and I already knew that flashcards were my thing. There really wasn’t that shocking moment when you get to college. I knew that they would require that you do three hours of reading after class. I was just used to that.”

A big surprise also awaited Harding when she went to visit her college adviser.

“She was like, ‘Um, you’re considered a sophomore,’” Harding said. “I had so many credits, I didn’t have any freshman courses to take, except for biology.”

Part of the AHS guidance department, the Early College program took two years to plan, according to guidance councilor Mary Beth Exner, who added the program “has high hopes for the middle kids.”

“It is for the average kid with untapped potential,” Exner said. “The parents are pleased with the program as well. They know these core (classes) are going to cost them, so why not do it in high school? They are able to explore a little more in college because they are taking in the core classes while they are at AHS. It is really building confidence for these kids. Why not give them a level playing field?”

While the program does cost the participating students $800 for their nine credits each year, Exner added that the textbooks are free. Based on 2015 numbers, the estimated cost of three credits for state residents at NECC is $655; at Salem State University, $1,365; at UMass Dartmouth, $2,920; and over $5,000 at Boston University.

A first-generation American of Vietnamese descent, Harding was able to finish her bachelor’s degree in biology at Emmanuel in three years and is now part of a three-year accelerated Doctorate of Pharmacy program at the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy.

“It was a big deal,” Harding said. “My brother went to school for four years and (my parents) knew how expensive it was. So when I was going to go for three, they were like, ‘Yes. Do whatever you need to do. Make sure you graduate in three years.’”

The son of a single mother, Zielinski graduated with his bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of New Hampshire this spring and is now working for the Cambridge-based software company Hubspot.

“I wasn’t going to college unless I had paid for it,” Zielinski said. “I knew I was going to graduate school early. I didn’t think it was going to be a full year but, with the help of the Early College classes, I got to graduate early. My mother is ecstatic. Well, it is more like, she is happy for me since I have a year less to pay off my loans. (Lyanh and I) have gotten a couple of great opportunities over the past several months. It all started with that program.”