HAVERHILL — Northern Essex Community College's 600 graduating students are working their way around the coronavirus crisis.
And while the pandemic prevented them from enjoying a traditional graduation celebration, the students and school are finding ways to keep this time special.
Hundreds of the graduates came to the Haverhill campus this week to pick up their diplomas, "Class of 2020'' yard signs and a celebration package containing a NECC sweatshirt blanket, an NECC mask, an alumni decal, celebration photo graphics and other items.
The students were greeted by balloons, music, cheering school staff members and the NECC Knight mascot (student trustee Courtney Morin in costume) who posed for photos. Everyone at the event practiced social distancing and wore a mask.
This year's in-person graduation was cancelled due to the pandemic, and in its place the college will hold a virtual graduation ceremony Aug. 8.
The youngest graduate is likely 17-year-old Jack Gilmore of Topsfield, who received an associate's degree in general studies: individualized option, thanks to the NECC Early College Program. Gilmore, who also received his high school diploma from Masconomet Regional High School this spring, will attend the University of Connecticut in the fall to study mechanical engineering. His proud mom said he will begin college as a sophomore, and graduate at least a year early with his bachelor’s degree.
Kaileigh DeCosta of Merrimac and her aunt Adina Sulesky of Plaistow arrived at the NECC campus together to pick up their diplomas and packages, making it a family affair. DeCosta, a 2017 graduate of Amesbury High School, earned her NECC degree in general studies: individualized option and will transfer to Becker College in the fall.
Sulesky, who graduated from Haverhill High School in 1996 and is graduating with high honors from NECC's criminal justice program, wants to take some time off before continuing her education.
"It took five and a half years to earn this degree, so I’m ready for a break," she said with a smile.
Omayra Gonzalez of Lawrence graduated with a degree from NECC in liberal arts: psychology. She will transfer to UMass Lowell to continue her studies.
The graduates shared their plans to transfer to UMass Lowell, Merrimack College, Southern New Hampshire University, Northeastern, Regis, Cambridge College and other schools. They also talked about new jobs with hospitals such as Massachusetts General, Brigham and Women’s, Lawrence General and Lowell General.
Northern Essex President Lane Glenn greeted many of the graduates personally.
“This has been a challenging semester due to the impact of COVID-19,” Glenn said. “I couldn’t be more proud of this class. They’ve been through so much, but they didn’t quit. They are truly an amazing group.”
For graduates who couldn’t make it to this week's event, the college will hand out diplomas and celebration packages on the Lawrence campus on Thursday from 4 to 6 p.m. in the parking lot area of the Dimitry Building at 45 Franklin St.
Also planned, with help from HC Media, is a commencement ceremony on Aug. 8 at 11 a.m. While it’s being offered virtually, the ceremony will include many traditional elements. Early childhood education graduate Emily Forisso of Haverhill will open the ceremony by singing the national anthem. Rosanna Lara, a public health major from Lawrence, will deliver the student speech. Rosalin Acosta, Massachusetts secretary of labor and workforce development, will give the commencement speech. The college’s Social Justice Award recipient and the gift from the Class of 2020 will be announced.
Each of this year's 600 graduates is being asked to submit a photo that will be shown, along with their virtual diploma, as part of the ceremony.
Graduates will also be invited to participate in next year’s commencement exercises, which will recognize both the Class of 2020 and the Class of 2021.