HAVERHILL — A few years ago, Methuen High senior Sabrina Hamel was told she had accumulated too many absences and wouldn't be allowed to graduate with her class.
"I didn't have enough credits," she said. "I had a lot of turmoil in my life."
She dropped out of school, an uncertain future looming in front of her.
Fast forward to today.
Hamel, 23, recently graduated from Northern Essex Community College with an associate in science degree and will start working as a respiratory therapist at Boston Children's Hospital this week. The young woman who only a few years ago had a chronic absenteeism problem earned a 3.7 grade point average at NECC.
Her achievement didn't occur without perseverance and determination. In fact, she never completely abandoned the idea that she needed an education to succeed.
After quitting Methuen High, she earned a GED and took her first stab at attending Northern Essex as a music major. But her grades were poor, she said. So again, she left school.
She worked as a secretary and waitress, but said she began to understand that she craved a more challenging career.
"I always wanted to work with kids and babies," she said. She also loved science.
In considering applying for the nursing program at Northern Essex, she discovered the school offers many other options in the health care field.
The family of her boyfriend, Isaias Martinez, offered a suggestion: respiratory therapy. Isaias' mother, Lucy Mirabal, and his brother, Joe Martinez, both are respiratory therapists.
At first, Hamel wasn't sure if that was the right fit for her.
"I had a lot of concerns," she said.
Respiratory therapists monitor the highly sophisticated machines that breathe for patients who cannot do so on their own. It's a job that one does not qualify for in five or six easy lessons.
Still, after doing some research and with the encouragement of Isaias, his mother and brother, she decided to give it a try.
"It sounded really cool," she said. She enrolled in the program in the fall of 2016 and graduated this year.
At first, she said, "I was walking around blindly." But she soon acquired a passion for the profession she was studying.
"We are their lungs," she said of the patients of respiratory therapists. "We breathe for them."
One of her professors, Michael Cusano, let her shadow him at Children's Hospital, where he is employed.
"It's very interesting," she said.
"All patients have to be ventilated differently," she explained, pointing out that it takes a "team effort" involving physicians, nurses and therapists to provide the correct medical care.
While taking her classes at Northern Essex, Hamel worked at Lawrence General Hospital with a student license and did an internship at Brigham and Women's Hospital.
"The program is amazing," Hamel, now of Wilmington, said of her course of study. "I am so grateful this school is here."
State Rep. Andy Vargas, D-Haverhill, who spoke at the Northern Essex commencement May 19, mentioned Hamel's success story.
"I almost had a heart attack," she said with a laugh.
John Murray, one of her professors, said she "grew from someone not too sure about herself to a very confident student. She is one of the students who would show up for extra work or help even though she had excellent grades."
Murray noted Hamel's grades were high enough for her to be inducted into Phi Theta Kappa, the honors society for two-year colleges.
"This last year she was the leader of the Lawrence (Phi Theta Kappa) group responsible for raising funds to sponsor an NECC student and her children for Christmas, giving them a great day. So in conclusion, Sabrina not only excelled academically but also found time to give back to the NECC community. I am sure she will take this spirit with her in her new role as a respiratory care practitioner," Murray said.
Jennifer Jackson-Stevens, director of the college's respiratory care program, had high praise for Hamel, too.
"Thanks to the highly skilled faculty at NECC coupled with Ms. Hamel’s staunch effort and determination, Sabrina will begin her career as a registered respiratory therapist in the world-acclaimed Boston Children’s Hospital," Jackson-Stevens said.