HAVERHILL — Growing up, Kimberly Hudson would create lessons, make tests and correct papers she gave to friends as they played school.
Ever since the second grade, all Stephanie DeSantis could think about was becoming a teacher.
Child's play will soon become their profession. Hudson, 28, and DeSantis, 26, are among 14 women who will graduate Fitchburg State College today, part of a collaboration between the school and Northern Essex Community College.
"I'm just so excited to finally get in the classroom with children to share my passion for education and learning with them," Hudson said.
For the past five years, Hudson, has juggled her teacher's aide job at Walnut Square School with raising chickens and goats at her family farm and raising two children, all while taking up to three classes at Northern Essex in Haverhill.
"I don't just want to teach children, I want to learn with them."
Hudson and DeSantis are in the first group to graduate since the partnership started. To celebrate their achievement, the women got together Thursday at a reception at Northern Essex.
The women, who come from Lawrence, Methuen, Andover and Groveland and the New Hampshire towns of Danville, Hampstead and Plaistow, earned an associate degree from Northern Essex. They then took classes for bachelor's degrees in elementary and early childhood education from Fitchburg State.
DeSantis, a 2000 Lawrence High graduate, spoke to classmates and guests at the reception about her desire to get an education.
She had to postpone her education to get a job and support her son, but her eighth-grade teacher, Mark Ross, urged her to attend college.
"He wasn't someone who looked down on us. We were on an even playing field. He really convinced me by making me feel working for my degree was really worth it," said DeSantis, a kindergarten teacher's aide at Parthum School in Lawrence.
DeSantis was one of the first to enroll in the partnership between the two colleges in 2005 after getting her associate degree with high honors from Northern Essex.
It took her seven years to earn her degree because she took one class a semester in the fall, spring and summer sessions.
DeSantis said it was all worth it.
"I've been picturing this moment as down the road and this is actually happening. It's very surreal."
Another motivating factor was being a single mother to Christian Munoz, 7, after getting divorced.
"I didn't want to be another statistic and that drew me further to get an education," she said.
"I'd like to do for young children what Mr. Ross did for me. Teaching is not just about learning arithmetic and writing, it's getting them ready to do something and be somebody someday," DeSantis said.
List of graduates
Andover, Susan Lacroix; Amesbury, Alice Bettencourt; Bradford, Jacqueline McCord, Kathleen Corbett; Danville, N.H., Laurie Boutin; Groveland, Lela Davis; Hampstead, Erica Sieczkowski; Haverhill, Kimberly Hudson; Lawrence, Stephanie DeSantis; Methuen, Darlene Baker, Sharon Letendre, Kathleen Marcoux and Debra Tilton; Plaistow, N.H., Margaret Stoltz.