It’s been a Soulful week at Northern Essex Community College.

Celebrating Stories Under the Big Top Tent

A little more than a week ago, at our 54th Commencement Exercises, NECC awarded more than 1,300 degrees and certificates—the largest number in the history of the college—and celebrated the resiliency of a few amazing students and alumni.

Each year, graduation under that enormous white tent on the lawn behind the Spurk Building is like your birthday, Christmas, anniversary, and a half dozen or more other special occasions all rolled into one amazing day.

There is a story of perseverance and accomplishment to nourish the soul for every student who crosses the stage, and this year we were particularly inspired by our Outstanding Alumnus, Wendy Estrella, who told her story of coming to the United States from the Dominican Republic when she was thirteen, not knowing a word of English, and today is living her own American Dream; and by Ray Florent, our student speaker, who told his story about his first career as a welder, cut short by a workplace injury, and his new professional passion: elementary education.

And by these three amazing graduates:

Jeanne Hallisey of Amesbury is the mother of two young children who returned to school decades after graduating from high school when her lack of a college degree was making it hard for her to find a job.

In addition to a full-time course load and parenting responsibilities, Jeanne was also caring for her husband, Daniel, who was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 2008, underwent extensive treatments over a period of years, and died a few months ago, in February.

In the midst of those personal challenges, last summer Jeanne interviewed with the Amesbury Chamber of Commerce for an internship—and they were so impressed that they hired her as their new full-time member services coordinator.

Last fall, she worked full-time and took four classes so she could complete her associate degree in accounting (with high honors); and now plans to continue her education with a bachelor’s degree in marketing.

Twenty-two year old CJay Diprima was a student at Franklin Pierce University in 2012 when he was diagnosed with a rare form of Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma called Gray Zone.

Throughout his treatment, which included months of radiation and chemotherapy, his constant mantra was, “Stay positive,” a phrase he and his childhood friend Tom Mullin thought might look good on a t-shirt.

CJay is now cancer free and he and Tom are the entrepreneurs behind Stay Positive Apparel, a line of t-shirts, men’s and women’s tank tops, hats, caps, sweatshirts, wristbands and visors.  Their products are shipped all around the world, and thirty-percent of their profits are donated to the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center for Children.

Staying positive worked for CJay: In addition to his health, he graduated with honors and an associate degree in General Studies: Art, and is transferring to Southern New Hampshire University this fall to build on his successful launch as an entrepreneur with new skills in graphic design.

And NECC’s very own Professor Michael Cross.

Professor Cross is known across campus as a magician, the faculty sponsor of the Bacon Boardgamers Club (yes, it is a student club for boardgamers who also enjoy bacon), and as the distributor and awarder of unique prizes (like dinosaur fossils, chocolate truffles, and carved wooden ducks) for the “Tuesday Brain Teaser.”

And for the past year, although he already has his PhD in Organic Chemistry and has taught at NECC since 2010, he has also been a Liberal Arts student, taking a full-time course load in addition to teaching and raising three children.

Professor Cross was inspired by some of his own students while applauding for them at last year’s Honors Convocation, and thought it might provide him with a unique perspective on what their lives were like if he went back to school himself.

So he did—racking up the credits, hitting the library and the tutoring centers, and burning the midnight oil to complete research papers and online discussion board posts, all while learning some valuable ideas from other students and his faculty colleagues that he hopes will lead to improved student experiences at NECC.

And those are just a few of the more than 1,300 stories from this year’s Commencement.  Only 354 days until May 20, 2017, when we will be back on stage under that big white tent again, celebrating more stories—maybe yours, too?

 

Education for the Body and Soul

When Plato imagined the ideal education for the guardians and philosopher-kings of society in his Republic, he described the role of mathematics, ethics, rhetoric and war craft; but he saved some of his most stirring passages to insist on the importance of the arts, love of beauty, and “music for the soul and gymnastics for the body.”

Through each form of education, in the various dialogues of the Republic, Socrates constantly seeks to balance the three features of our souls—the appetitive (seeking pleasure), the spirited (seeking honor), and the rational (seeking wisdom)—so they are in harmony with one another.

Twenty-four-hundred years later, Little Sis Z hasn’t formed an opinion about Plato and The Republic yet.  She also hasn’t decided whether she wants to be a guardian, a philosopher-king, a scientist, or a pastry chef (whichever way she goes, the smart money is on her being in charge of whatever she is doing).

At this point, Little Sis just knows she wants to earn good grades in her classes, loves to run around the field working up a sweat, then come home and spend a couple quiet, contemplative hours with a paintbrush in her hand.

Last week was a proud one for a well-rounded education in Little Sis’ world.  She received an Honors recognition at her middle school’s annual Celebration of Excellence for her academic achievements; escorted Dad and a visiting Grandpa to her “Enchanted Forest” Sweetheart Dance (the last one for her as she rounds the corner into seventh grade); helped win a soccer game and bat in a few runs for her softball team; and take home a couple of blue ribbons from our town’s Youth Art Show.

Yes, after a year or so of after school art lessons, Little Sis has suddenly blossomed as a painter, sculptor, photographer, and crafter of any other medium she puts her busy little hands into.

For the town Youth Art Show she selected a few recent favorites that show her range, including “Backroad Barn,” a photograph she took while traveling through Maine in April:

Backroad Barn

“#13,” an abstract sculpture she created with wood, wire, panty hose and gesso:

Abstract Sculpture

And my favorite, “Moonlight Birch,” a painting that started with a text I received from Little Sis one afternoon asking, “Hey Dad, I found an old board in the basement.  Can I paint it?”

Moonlight Birch

No doubt about it, even if Plato couldn’t see it coming a couple millennia ago.  Around our house, all the best philosopher-kings are philosopher-queens.  Smart, strong, bold, occasionally sweaty, constantly creative, and with artful, well-balanced souls.


As you look back on your week, and forward to the one ahead, may you overcome the odds, tell your story proudly, and find your best balance of body and soul.


And if you’d like to learn more about what’s been happening at NECC, please:

Visit the NECC Newsroom

Find me at www.facebook.com/lane.a.glenn

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–Lane