For many years now, there has been a dinnertime tradition at my house. As we sit down to enjoy each other’s company and the evening meal, we share something we are thankful for and something we are hopeful for.
There aren’t too many rules about what we call our “Thankfuls and Hopefuls.” We used to say them first and try to keep the lists short enough that the food wouldn’t get cold, but as my daughters grew older, and the “Thankfuls and Hopefuls” became even more involved and interesting, we finally decided to go ahead and eat while we share (and do what we can not to speak with our mouths full).
As idyllic and Norman Rockwell-ish as this tradition of ours may sound, it actually began during a time of hardship in our family, when seeking out things to be thankful for and dreams of the future to aspire toward helped us get through the many challenges of the day.
As Thanksgiving approaches, and we all prepare to sit down and enjoy the company of those closest to us over a good meal together, whatever challenges and rewards the past year has held for you, sharing a sense of gratitude and hopefulness may be just what we all need most.
Here are a few things from 2023 that I’m Thankful for:
A Banner Year for State Support of Higher Education
In one of the best years ever for state support of higher education in Massachusetts, this year we launched MassReconnect, a $20 million investment which provides free community college classes for anyone 25 years or older who has not yet completed a degree; continued the amazingly successful SUCCESS program (which got its start here at NECC) with $14 million; boosted Early College support by $14 million; and just last week, announced an infusion of a whopping $62 million into MassGrant Plus Expansion, which will now provide free tuition at any public college or university in Massachusetts for Pell eligible students, and discounted tuition for students with family incomes up to $100,000.
After many years of cuts or “level” funding, it’s an amazing demonstration of support for the state’s public colleges and our students.
Nationwide, there are an estimated 2.3 million people who arrived in the United States as children, and do not have citizenship status. Often referred to as “Dreamers,” they occupy a challenging place in our country, for most the only country they have ever known: Their education and employment options are limited, and they live in constant uncertainty, not knowing whether they may be deported to a place they do not even remember.
The DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, implemented during the Obama administration, has brought some limited sense of security, and a possible path to citizenship, for close to 600,000 young people, around 5,000 here in Massachusetts. But DACA has not been allowing new applicants, thanks to a 2022 court decision, and the decade-long program, despite bipartisan support from two-thirds of American voters, is in danger of disappearing.
At a time when the Massachusetts economy needs college-educated workers more than ever, undocumented students who have grown up in the Commonwealth have been treated like international students, charged three times the normal rates of tuition at public colleges and universities, with limited access to financial aid.
A few months ago, we celebrated the passage of the Tuition Equity bill, which provides certain undocumented students in-state tuition rates and access to state financial aid, on NECC’s Lawrence Campus with Governor Healey, Lieutenant Governor Driscoll, Education Secretary Tutwiler, Senate President Spilka, and dozens of college and university presidents, business and community leaders and other supporters.
NECC student Joan Shauri, recently admitted to our Nursing Program, generously shared her story of arriving here from Tanzania with a relative when she was only six years old, and of cleaning houses to pay for a class at a time while working her way through her associate degree. The new Tuition Equity bill, and a scholarship from the college, will now provide Joan the support she, and many other students, need to complete their education and pursue their dreams.
What an amazing year it has been for NECC Knights athletics! In October, the Knights scored a trifecta when three teams appeared in national rankings at the same time, with the Women’s Volleyball team (that went on to win the Region 21 Championship and travel to the national tournament in Iowa) landing at #13 and Men’s Soccer at #9 in the final national poll of the season, while Men’s Basketball ranked #5 in preseason polling.
Since that wonderful week, the Men’s Basketball team played the nation’s first NJCAA game of the season when they shot their way to a 95-55 win over Bunker Hill Community College in a “Midnight Madness” game on Halloween, before jumping out to 6-0 record and a #2 national ranking.
Meanwhile, the perennially top-ranked Men’s Baseball team spent part of their off-season training playing a few exhibition games and doing community service projects in the Dominican Republic, where many of our students’ families were able to watch them play for the first time.
We hear from former students all the time: “I wish I could have stayed here longer!” They appreciate small class sizes, plenty of options for sports, clubs and activities, and most of all, the faculty and staff who care about them and do all they can to help them succeed. Some of the most talented and dedicated educators you can find anywhere work at Northern Essex Community College.
And, like organizations of every kind, big and small, the last few years of the COVID pandemic and remote work have interrupted the everyday patterns of engagement—with students and with each other—that we were used to, and that we enjoyed so much.
Faculty and staff engagement on a college campus is essential to student success, and to recruiting and retaining those dedicated, talented educators that NECC is known for; so to gauge how we are doing and how we can improve, we recently offered Gallup’s Q12 Employee Engagement Survey to our nearly 400 full-time employees.
The twelve-question survey asks participants to respond to statements like, “There is someone at work who encourages my development” and “The mission or purpose of my company makes me feel my job is important.”
More than 80% of NECC faculty and staff took the survey (an amazing response rate, higher than Gallup expected) and in the months ahead we will be sharing results across the college and looking for even more ways to make NECC the best possible place to work, and the place all of our students wish they could stay longer.
And here are a few things I am Hopeful for:
E Pluribus Unum
This one has been on my list of “hopefuls” for a few years now:
“Out of many, one”: The motto of the United States of America since 1776, and a recognition that our highest aspiration has always been to become greater than the sum of our separate parts.
Differences of opinion have driven us since our founding, and have caused us to grow stronger; and although we have lived through perilous times, such as a bloody civil war, when our differences may have never seemed greater, today’s rancor and ideological divides have our democracy pushed quite close to the edge.
It’s time to restore some “unum” to the “pluribus.”
In 1961, the year that Northern Essex Community College enrolled our first students in classrooms at the Greenleaf Elementary School in Haverhill, our state’s own President John F. Kennedy addressed the Canadian Parliament in Ottawa, reassuring them that, “Geography has made us neighbors. History has made us friends. Economics has made us partners. And necessity has made us allies. Those whom nature hath so joined together, let no man put asunder. What unites us is far greater than what divides us.”
While his address was meant to unify friendly international neighbors, the same can be said for neighbors right here in America, down the street or in the “red” or “blue” state next door.
What unites us is far greater than what divides us.
Kennedy went on to sound a note of realism amidst idealism: “We are bound to have differences and disappointments,” he acknowledged, “And we are equally bound to bring them out into the open, to settle them where they can be settled, and to respect each other’s views when they cannot be settled.”
Diversity of thought and opinion, competition, and even conflict can drive discovery, innovation, and fruitful compromise.
But to get there, we need to restore dignity, decorum, and goodwill to our public discourse.
I am hopeful we find a way to do this in the months ahead.
The Summit of Mount Aconcagua
The day after Christmas, my two brothers and I are flying to Argentina for a three-week climb of Mount Aconcagua. At 23,000 feet, Aconcagua is the tallest mountain in the world outside of the Himalaya Range (home to Mount Everest). Oxygen levels at the summit are less than half what we breathe at sea level, and thanks to the altitude, winds, and cold weather, only about a third of climbers reach the top.
We will be trekking during “summertime” on the mountain (when wind chills tend toward a more survivable -20 degrees, compared to the 80 mile-an-hour gusts and -100 degree temperatures of the Aconcagua winter).
I’m hopeful for a smiling snapshot of all three of us on the summit of that big hill sometime in mid-January!
State Support for Community College Faculty and Professional Staff
While it has definitely been a banner year for state support of public college students and programs that support them, the state legislature has unfortunately still not agreed on a months-overdue bill that would close out the 2022-23 budget year, and that includes contractual salary increases for more than 90 public employee unions.
Only one of those unions, though, the Massachusetts Community College Council, representing thousands of faculty and professional staff at the state’s fifteen community colleges, has not had a salary increase since 2020, during a time of some of the steepest inflation in a generation.
Community college faculty and staff are some of the hardest working, most dedicated people in all of education, and they deserve better. I am hopeful the closeout bill gets passed as soon as possible.
Little Sis Z is back from college, and Big Sis T arrives home today from LA. Tomorrow, and through the weekend, we will gather around the table and share more of our collective Thankfuls & Hopefuls with those we hold most dear.
So, finally, I am hopeful for a peaceful, restful, healthy, and enjoyable Thanksgiving holiday for you and yours. As you sit down to dinner and enjoy the company of those closest to you, may you truly give thanks for the good things in your life, and let the spirit of hope lift you up and inspire you and those around you.