NECC Observer

The student news website of Northern Essex Community College, Haverhill and Lawrence, Mass.

Only yesterday: A look back at NECC and its legacy over 60 years

 When Northern Essex Community College opened its doors in 1961, few would’ve expected the former schoolhouse would one day morph into two sprawling campuses, with an enrollment of nearly 4,000. Northern Essex Community College was one of only four community colleges in Massachusetts when it was founded and its inaugural class only had a student body of 186, the vast majority being male.

While Northern Essex Community College has remained, the world it began in has changed profoundly in the decades since its founding.

The experiences of its students in those interweaving decades have varied widely as the college has expanded and its course catalog has grown larger and larger.

While their experiences may not be universal, they can help us understand the history and greater purpose of Northern Essex Community College and how we might wish to move forward in the future. 

When Northern Essex first moved to its current Kenoza Lake one would be hard pressed to recognize the campus we see today.

According to the NECC website, there were four buildings open in time for the Fall 1971 semester; The Fitness Center, the Science Building, the Science Building, and the Spurk Building. The parking lot was still mostly unpaved, which proved problematic for students looking to commute; with The Observer at the time even lampooning the situation with an article entitled “Mud Pies. 

While today Northern Essex Students have dozens of programs to choose from, there were only six degrees available to students at the time. Slowly the Northern Essex Student Body started to shift from mostly 18 to 19 year old high school graduates to adults looking to further their career opportunities , along with other nontraditional students outside of the typical ‘fresh out of college’ demographic. 

Around this time, Mary Burke (NECC 85’) began to pursue a career in medicine and enrolled in the Nursing Program. “It was completely different from the first time I tried at college, it was much more hands-on,” she remarked on her experience in the nursing program in 1984, which had just seen an expansion around the same time after receiving Title III grants from the federal government. Burke, of Haverhill,  credits the firsthand experiences she received in the Northern Essex Nursing Program with her later success in the nursing field.

“Once I started at the hospital I realized a lot of the nurses who’d graduated from four year schools were nowhere as prepared as we were,” she said.

She looks back fondly on the changes she witnessed in higher education from her first attempt at a degree in the mid 1970s.

“College was too abstract for me the first time around. The classes were a lot more confusing, and really irrelevant to what you actually wanted to do for a living. By the time I went back I wanted something that would teach me how to be a nurse, I wasn’t really interested in anything else.” Burke continues to work as a nurse today. 

The wide array of people who’ve attended Northern Essex Community College over the years can serve as reminders of where Northern Essex Community College grew out of and where it might hope to grow in the future.

Women have gone from being a fraction of the student body to the majority (65 percent), and while most students were once fresh out of high school, today 30 percent of enrolled students are over 26, according to the website.  Though 60 years is trivial compared to the centuries some of its more established rivals have been open, these accounts can help us put into perspective just how many lives have been changed over the decades and the progress Northern Essex Community College continues to make as the years go by.

Though ‘Harvard on the Kenoza’ has long served as a demeaning moniker of sorts, it might not be far off in the minds of the community it serves.