Six decades have passed since Northern Essex Community College opened its doors in a tiny Bradford schoolhouse to a class of just 181 students, including 142 men and 39 women, most of whom were 18 or 19 years old.

Students had just six associate degree programs to choose from. There are now around 60 associate degrees and certificates offered, as well as community educational programs for adults and children.

After opening in 1961, Northern Essex continued to operate at Greenleaf School for 10 years and also operated out of several satellite locations, including the old Haverhill High School, which was in the current City Hall.

In 1963, the city built a new high school on Monument Street in Haverhill, and in 1971, NECC opened its new, sprawling campus on Elliott Street at the opposite side of town. At that time, many of the college’s parking areas were still unpaved and on rainy days became a muddy mess.

The Haverhill campus is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

In 1984, NECC expanded into Lawrence, holding classes in various locations around the city. What is now the Dimitry Building opened in 1991, establishing a permanent campus there.

Local businessman Jeff Linehan, a trustee of Northern Essex and 1977 graduate, says that the college is an asset to the community in many ways.

“It’s an important step for students who don’t want to move away to attend a four-year college and can stay home and commute to Northern Essex, whether it’s the Haverhill campus or the Lawrence campus,” he says. “And if students aren’t sure of what they want to do, they can attend Northern Essex and decide what career path they want to pursue without investing a lot of money.”

The college has had just four presidents in its 60-year history, beginning with Harold Bentley and extending to John Dimitry and David Hartleb. All three carried their own weight toward enhancement, handing over the keys in 2011 to Lane Glenn, a former community college student who is passionate about NECC and the communities it serves.

“Community colleges level the educational playing field, ensuring that everyone has access to college, regardless of how much money they have, their prior academic record, or their age or their ethnicity,” Glenn says. “We essentially remove all barriers to higher education, providing social and economic mobility to all local residents.”

He says that 95% of NECC graduates live and work in the Merrimack Valley.

“Our graduates are providing your health care, running local businesses, educating your children and a whole lot more,” Glenn says. “We are having a dramatic impact on the economic vitality of our community.”

The college has evolved over the years, partnering with local employers to offer career programs, such as associate degrees in respiratory therapy and lab science and certificates in programs such as medical assisting, computer networking and culinary arts, leading to immediate employment.

Occupying two floors in The Heights in downtown Haverhill, a new 10-story luxury building, is the new Lupoli Family Culinary Arts Institute. The space opened this fall with a series of 30 noncredit culinary arts courses and will serve as home base to the college’s 29-credit culinary arts certificate and 63-credit associate degree in hospitality management programs.

NECC is also home to one of the most successful police academies in the state. And it hosts the Essex County Sheriff’s Department Training Academy for corrections officers and runs the educational programming for Middleton Jail inmates.

In the fall of 2020, 4,715 students enrolled in credit courses at Northern Essex: 69% are studying part time, 65% are female, 42% are Hispanic and 30% are over the age of 25.

The college, a federally designated Hispanic-Serving Institution, has continued to make serving students of color a priority, developing best practices for helping Hispanic and other populations that are underrepresented in higher education be successful.

“We want to raise the higher education attainment rates in the communities we serve, especially those that have lower percentages of college-educated residents,” Glenn says. “We are working hard to get more students through college, especially students of color, who are underrepresented in higher education. We are focusing on the analytics, carefully measuring retention, graduation and transfer rates, to determine what’s working and where our students are experiencing challenges.”

Shalimar Quiles, principal of Oliver Partnership School in Lawrence and a member of NECC’s Board of Trustees, was born and raised in Lawrence.

“When I think of Northern Essex and its footprint in the city of Lawrence, I think of how it has promoted a college-going culture in the community as it occupies so much or our downtown area,” she says. “You see students hustling and bustling from one building to another. Many people in the city have a close relationship with Northern Essex, which we are lucky to have in our city.”

This past school year also saw a 37% increase in enrollment in Early College programs, with 548 high schoolers taking part. NECC is one of 19 colleges and universities participating in the statewide Massachusetts Early College Initiative, in partnership with Haverhill High School, Lawrence High School, Whittier Regional Vocational Technical High School and 25 other local high schools.

NECC is known for services that support students at every step of their education, with academic and career advising, tutoring, and more.

The recently renamed Center for Accessibility Resources & Services — formerly known as the Learning Accommodations Center — in the Behrakis Student Center determines what resources will provide equal access to students with a documented disability.

The college now has five academic centers, organized by major, where students can meet with faculty and academic and career advisers, access tutoring, register for classes, attend presentations, and meet informally with other students who share similar interests.

A third of the students at Northern Essex are enrolled in one of the college’s 22 health programs in high-demand fields, ranging from nursing to respiratory care to sleep technology.

The college recently launched an evening option for the dental assisting program and is working on a new series of micro-credentials programs for health care workers in the field, in areas such as advanced cardiac life support and pediatric advanced life support.

Some of the more recent construction on both campuses includes the El-Hefni Allied Health & Technology Center, which opened in 2014 on Common Street in Lawrence and features a health education simulation center, classrooms, computer labs and the Center for Health Professions, and the Hartleb Technology Center, which opened on the Haverhill campus in 2005 and is home to many of the college’s STEM programs.

Workforce development

NECC now runs the MassHire Merrimack Valley Career Centers in Haverhill and Lawrence. This fall, NECC plans to launch short-term noncredit programs leading to immediate jobs with good salaries, starting with sales training, followed by programs in data analysis and finance.

The college is also collaborating with the YWCA of the North Shore to jointly build a facility on the Haverhill campus and with Whittier Regional Vocational Technical School to have a permanent home on the Haverhill campus.

Notable alumni

  • Steve Bedrosian, 1977, former Major League Baseball player and 1987 National League Cy Young Award winner
  • Tom Bergeron, 1974-’75, television personality
  • Daniel Lyons, 1983, former senior editor, Forbes Magazine, and writer, Newsweek, now a best-selling author
  • Dr. Eric Dickson, 1988, professor of emergency medicine, chief executive officer, UMass Memorial Health Care
  • Helen Ubiñas, 1991, columnist, Philadelphia Inquirer

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