By Mike LaBella
---- — HAVERHILL — It took Matthew Huggins 10 years to earn a degree from Northern Essex Community College. There was no lack of effort on his part, but when you can’t speak and are unable to write or type with your hands, things take time.
“It was one click of the chin switch at a time,” said his mother, Katherine Ananis of Andover about the switch beneath her son’s chin that connects to computer device mounted to his wheelchair that allows him to express his thoughts in text or a computer voice.
Huggins, 29, graduated from NECC yesterday earning an Associate in Arts, General Studies degree, with high honors.
When it was time for him to receive his diploma, he paused on the podium for a picture with NECC President Lane Glenn. Huggins’ story was one of many that made up NECC’s class of 2013.
Northern Essex Community College held its 51st commencement exercises yesterday under a large tent on the quadrangle of its Haverhill campus.
It was one of the largest graduating classes in the college’s history, with nearly 1,500 graduates receiving certificates and associates degrees. Of those, 65 percent were women, 37 percent were minorities and more than half were first-generation college graduates, according to college officials.
In his welcome to the class, Glenn reflected on the tragic events surrounding this year’s Boston Marathon and how “every-day” heroes rose to the occasion by selflessly helping others. Glenn took a moment to recognize what he said were the college’s “own heroes.”
“Hundreds of you are graduating from helping fields such as criminal justice, health care, human services and education,” Glenn said. “These fields are more than just careers, they are a calling requiring individuals who are committed to caring for others and unafraid to help in time of crisis.”
Glenn talked about a few graduates, including Letoya “Apollo” Mburu, a Kenyan native who graduated with high honors and a degree in nursing.
“Apollo has discovered that health care is his calling,” Glenn said.
Some graduates faced personal challenges, Glenn said, such as Zachary Rice of Derry, N.H., who graduated with a lab science degree with high honors and from the college’s rigorous Honors Program. Rice, 30, had a job making countertops, then in 2009 he suffered an injury that forced him to make a career change.
“Zach now calls his tragedy ‘the best thing that ever happened to me,’” Glenn said.
Rice plans to continue his education this fall at the University of New Hampshire and study environmental science or chemistry.
“The amount of attention I got from my advisers and professors was incredible,” Rice told The Eagle-Tribune. “They were always uplifting and always there for me.”
In his student commencement speech, David DeJesus referred to himself as “just an average guy from Lawrence who love God, loves his wife and loves music.”
DeJesus, a talented guitarist who graduated with an associate degree in General Studies, Music Option, with high honors, said dreams of a better life led him to Northern Essex after struggling in the workforce for 13 years, “alternating between dead-end jobs and unemployment.”
DeJesus, who plans to continue his education at Berklee College of Music, told his class “it’s never too late to pursue your dreams.”
“Use the skills and knowledge you’ve learned here and go make a positive difference in the world,” DeJesus said. “As you continue to work towards a better life for yourself and your loved ones, don’t forget to contribute to make this world a better place to live.”
Yesterday’s featured speaker, Carmen Ortiz, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts, told graduates they were blazing a trail and creating a legacy that will be an inspiration to friends and family. Ortiz, the first woman and the first Hispanic U.S. Attorney in Massachusetts, said that when she applied for the job she had doubts and wondered if she could overcome the odds against her being chosen.
“It was my close friends, colleagues and family who told me to go for it and what do you have to lose,” Ortiz said. “I’m certain that without their support, I wouldn’t be here today.”
“I urge all of you to surround yourself with mentors, colleagues, friends and family who will help motivate you to keep moving forward,” Ortiz said.
Ortiz talked about several graduates who had to overcome many challenges in order to earn a degree, including Joseiry Santos of Lawrence, who immigrated to the U.S. in pursuit of an education. Ortiz said Santos juggled a full time job with her studies, and was rewarded with a degree in Criminal Justice with honors.
“Joseiry says that the United States is the country of opportunity,” Ortiz said. “But that doesn’t mean that it didn’t take her a lot of hard work and perseverance to achieve her dreams.”
Santos told The Eagle-Tribune that before she could begin college classes she enrolled in English language classes.
“After three years here, I have no words to describe how I’m feeling,” Santos said. “At first I didn’t think I could do it, but my mother and father and sisters all encouraged me to keep going. They’d tell me to never give up.”
After Matthew Huggins received his degree, his family gathered outside the tent before whisking him off to a celebration luncheon at the Andover Inn.
Matthew’s brother, former Eagle-Tribune reporter J.J. Huggins, said mitochondrial disease severely limits his brother’s muscle control and ability to speak, but it doesn’t affect his ability to think or to learn.
A 2003 graduate of Andover High School, Matthew Huggins took one class per semester leading up to his graduation yesterday. He was supported in his efforts by the school’s Learning Accomodations Center. The past year was a memorable one as Huggins discovered he had a passion for writing. At the college’s annual Writing Awards Ceremony, held last month, Huggins won an award in the Creative Nonfiction category for his story titled “A Visit to Windrush Farm.”
“He’s currently putting together a collection of stories about his experiences,” his mother said.