LAWRENCE, MA -- Over 1000 students graduated from Northern Essex Community College on Saturday, May 21. While each has their own story filled with challenges and triumphs, there are two students who stand out.
Rossy Gutierrez and Franklin Burgos, both of Lawrence, faced many obstacles on the path to higher education but both graduated and are now looking forward to successful careers.
Twenty-two years old and a graduate of Lawrence High School, Gutierrez came to this country from the Dominican Republic when she was 11 years old. Gutierrez is profoundly hard of hearing and in the Dominican Republic, her formal education would have stopped at the 6th grade.
Proud graduate Franklin Burgos with his girlfriend Lissette Torres and three-year-old daughter Brianna Burgos. Franklin graduated from Northern Essex Community College with high honors and an associate degree in criminal justice and will be transferring to UMass Lowell.
To see her graduating from college was an overwhelmingly happy feeling for her entire family, which came out in full force to support her.
While a student at Lawrence High School, Gutierrez participated in the Gallaudet University Academic Bowl for Deaf and Hard of Hearing students, which is how she connected with Northern Essex. After graduating from high school in 2007, Gutierrez came directly to Northern Essex, enrolling in the English Language Cluster, a developmental program designed especially for Deaf and Hard of Hearing students.
She soon transferred into the Human Service Program and earned an associate degree.
Gutierrez says she arrived at Northern Essex knowing "I wanted to work with and help people and be a good role model for Deaf children."
A practicum experience working at the Beverly School for the Deaf led to a full time job offer as a teacher's aide, a position which she started the week before commencement. Gutierrez plans to continue her education and eventually she would like to become a guidance counselor.
Franklin Burgos's journey was different but it was also challenging. A foster child, Burgos admits to having a hard time growing up. He was shuttled between close to a dozen families over the years, never staying long enough to make the lasting connections children crave.
When he was a senior at Lawrence High School, his girlfriend became pregnant. Burgos decided to drop out of high school so he could support his girlfriend and now three-year old daughter.
"Because of my childhood, my family is very important to me," he says. In 2008, Burgos decided he wanted to enroll in college so he earned his G.E.D. and enrolled in the criminal justice program at Northern Essex.
While in the program he worked fulltime as a peer specialist for Health & Education Services; attended school fulltime, earning high honors; and volunteered extensively in his community, teaching computers at the Lawrence Boys and Girls Club, serving on the Department of Children and Families' Youth Services Board, and teaching computers to the unemployed.
Burgos will take a brief break from college this summer and in September he is enrolled in the Criminal Justice Program at UMass Lowell. His eventual goal is to become a law enforcement officer.
Massachusetts Essex County Sheriff Frank G. Cousins, Jr., the featured commencement speaker, told the graduates and their families, "We are the sum of what we choose. Go forth to pursue great things." He encouraged the graduates to find success on their own terms. Cousins attended Northern Essex before transferring to Springfield College for a bachelor's and master's degree.
Cousins' speech followed Northern Essex student commencement speaker Shannon Sheltra of West Newbury, who returned to school at the age of 38 as a single mother of three with few skills and even fewer savings.
She had lost her partner as well as her home. She needed an education and career quickly. She found both at NECC, earning an associate degree in respiratory care as an Honors Experience/ Commonwealth Honors Scholar. In September, she is transferring to Tufts University to study biology/premed.
After recounting her own personal story Sheltra, getting emotional at times, told her fellow graduates, "We all face challenges in life. I have classmates who have lost their jobs, lost their homes, lost their loved ones, had babies while in school, been diagnosed with cancer... but they are all here today. Some people choose to turn challenges into excuses; others turn them into opportunities... All of you have inspired me... You have transformed my life. You have transformed the lives of my children... I am forever indebted to you. Graduates, I charge you with a mission: Go out into the world and continue to inspire people. Do what you love, love what you do."
NECC President David Hartleb presided over the ceremony, which was his last as he is retiring at the end of June.