HAVERHILL — More than 700 students are now part of the Northern Essex Community College alumni family. Four hundred of those students, along with their families and friends, gathered Saturday under the tent on the Haverhill campus for the 61st annual commencement ceremony.
Graduates proceeded into the tent behind the Stuart Highland Pipe Band – a Northern Essex tradition.
NECC President Lane Glenn opened the ceremony with words of encouragement for the Class of 2023.
“Today means you’re ready – whether you think so or not. Ready to take on life and the world. You endured the challenges of the pandemic. You beat many odds to get to this day. And what a glorious spring day we have to celebrate,” Glenn said.
Ember Spera, who earned an American Sign Language Interpreting Certificate, gave the student address. In a poignant twist, Spera signed the speech while friend and classmate Jess Myer read the words aloud.
Spera’s parents are deaf, and this speech represented a special full-circle moment. As a high school student, Spera planned to give an address at graduation, but the interpreter never showed up.
“Looking back, NECC changed my course of path and my life. My 18-year-old concept of a community college looks nothing like the real one. I found more community here than in some four-year programs. I invested my time and energy, and the return is priceless.”
Spera plans to work as a freelance interpreter. Spera also earned associate degrees from Northern Essex in liberal arts and communication/journalism and a bachelor’s degree in journalism from UMass-Amherst.
NECC alum and radio host Justin Aguirre, Class of 2009, provided a rousing and deeply personal featured address.
Aguirre came to NECC in 2006 as a recovering drug addict and convicted felon. He credits then-journalism professor, now the dean of liberal arts, Amy Callahan for taking him under her wing and showing him what was possible.
“My story is one of hope. Never give up on your dreams. Wherever you are going from here, whether to another school or into a career – remember to aim high and never give up. Don’t give in to that little voice in your head. If nobody told you they love you today, you’re hanging out with the wrong people. You should be told every day,” Aguirre said.
Aguirre transferred to Salem State after earning his associate degree in journalism/communication from Northern Essex. He is now the executive producer and co-host of the popular “Billy and Lisa in the Morning Show” on Kiss 108.
Social Justice Award
Northern Essex professor of philosophy Meredith Gunning is the recipient of the Social Justice Award.
The award recognizes individuals, groups, departments or initiatives at the college that promote values such as a commitment to equity and diversity or the advancement of human rights and social justice.
Glenn recognized Gunning’s work with the Community Outreach Group, which aims to be a bridge between the college and its surrounding neighborhoods. The group has collected canned goods for food banks, items for holiday gifts, clothing for homeless shelters, cleaned parks and raised money for charitable organizations.
He also cited her ongoing participation in workshops and conversations on anti-racism and equity issues and how she has applied these to her courses.
“On a recent sabbatical, she worked specifically to ‘decolonize’ her curriculum, to include more works of philosophers of color in her courses. Meredith’s influence has extended to, and beyond, the more than 10,000 students she has taught in more than 400 sections of philosophy classes in her career.”
In honor of the year the college was founded, the Social Justice Award comes with a cash prize of $1,961, which the recipient can use to advance social justice initiatives at Northern Essex.
Several other honors that have been awarded at commencement in the past are now part of the NECC Impact Awards.
Two longtime members of the college’s faculty and staff received emeritus status:
Mark Palermo retired in 2021 after 36 years at Northern Essex. He started as an ESL instructor and later taught Spanish and medical Spanish. Palermo also volunteered to teach classes for older learners, established the NECC chapter of Amnesty International, and founded the Northern Essex foreign film festival, an annual event that ran for several years and later became the Lawrence Film Festival held at Lawrence’s Heritage State Park.
Linda Murphy retired from Northern Essex in 2021 after 40 years of service to the college. She served as curriculum coordinator for developmental mathematics. In 2002, Murphy was honored with the NISOD excellence award.
Her leadership and passion for math found her serving as project manager for the Commonwealth’s 100% math initiative, promoting the reform of math curriculum and pedagogy. In 2014, Murphy launched an open-source modularized developmental math curriculum to build a pathway into college-level math.
At Northern Essex, the emeritus rank is an honor that recognizes sustained excellence in performance, character, and meritorious service to the college.
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