HAVERHILL — Northern Essex Community College awarded close to 1,100 degrees and certificates during its 57th commencement, held Saturday under a giant tent on the college's Haverhill campus.

NECC President Lane Glenn referred to community colleges as "democracy's colleges," saying they are a uniquely American invention, not found in many other places in the world and that they are affordable, local colleges whose doors are open to everyone.

"Our mission is to meet students where they are, and help them get where they most want to be," he said.

Glenn told graduates and a large crowd of well-wishers that every graduate has a story to tell, and reflected upon a few of those stories.

For Lucia Rondon, 29, of Lawrence, Glenn noted that she and her family were supported by public and private agencies and organizations when her younger brother, Leonel, became the lone fatality in the Merrimack Valley gas explosions.

"The entire Lawrence community came together to advocate for the Rondons, who found themselves immersed in a very public tragedy," Glenn said. "This experience reinforced Lucia's desire to work in the public health field. The 29-year-old wants to help others in her community by decreasing social disparities and language barriers around health-related issues."

Glenn noted that Rondon is the first in her family to graduate from a college.

Prior to commencement, Rondon told The Eagle-Tribune that her parents, her two young children and her fiance' were in the audience, and that her brother would have been there too.

"Today is a step forward in reaching my goal, which is a degree in public health," said Rondon, who is getting a job with the Greater Lawrence Family Health center as a medical case manager and plans to attend a four-year college, part-time, to obtain her bachelors degree.

Glenn commended Katherine Hailson of Haverhill, who graduated from Whittier Voc Tech's carpentry program then attended Northern Essex, where this year she was named a Newman Civic Fellow, a national program that recognizes community-committed students who are change-makers and public problem-solvers. He noted that Hailson will transfer to UMass Lowell and major in political science with a focus on public policy.

Katelyn Richardson of Wilmington arrived on NECC's campus in 2017, Glenn said, after having already earned a bachelor's degree in health science from James Madison University. Glenn said Richardson's goal at NECC was to learn American Sign Language before beginning graduate studies.

"We celebrate Katelyn for her commitment to a healing field and her compassion for those whose access to health care has often been limited," Glenn said.

Student speaker, Yexis Hechavarria of Lawrence noted that she was born in Cuba and came to the United States five years ago, at age 17, with limited English speaking abilities.

"Learning is necessary if we're going to reach our goals, and it's so exciting to master something new," she said. 

Hechavarria said she plans to enter the field of medicine.

"What draws me to the medical field is the miracle of life," she said. "Our bodies are so complex that it's a wonder we exist."

She told the class that "when you have a passion, it gives you a reason to get up in the morning ... a purpose in life."

While gathered inside NECC's gymnasium prior to commencement, several graduates shared their stories with The Eagle-Tribune.

Panayiotis (Peter) Orfanos, 20, of Haverhill, majored in business and plans to transfer to UMass Lowell for accounting.

"Coming to Northern Essex gave me the opportunity to earn my associates degree at an affordable price," he said. 

For Sari Eaton, 50, of Georgetown, attending Northern Essex after raising a family was a chance at a career she'd set aside years ago.

"I plan to attend UMass Lowell for computer science with the goal of getting into website design," she said. "Coming to Northern Essex was a chance to be close to my children, who attend Georgetown High School, and the cost was low."

Steven Flint, 20, of Methuen, hopes to continue his background in the education field. He graduated with an associates degree in early childhood education.

"I start summer classes at Salem State next week, and one day I hope to become a certified preschool teacher," Flint said.

Audrey Escoto, 30, of Lawrence, was working at Lawrence General Hospital as a patient safety monitor and in admissions, when she decided to return to school. She majored in biology at Northern Essex and plans to attend Boston University in hopes of becoming a dentist.

"The best thing about Northern Essex is they really push you, and won't let you fail," Escoto said.

As it has done for the past few years, the college launched a photo contest with prizes for the best graduate group photo, best photo with a teacher and student, best family photo and best cap design. Students, graduates, faculty, staff and family members were invited to post their photos with #NECC2019 before the end of the day on Sunday, May 19, and visit www.necc.mass.edu/necc2019 to view the results.