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How to Choose a Major

Submitted by on December 22, 2020 – 8:57 pm

Thelma Ortiz of Lawrence discovered a career path, with the help of NECC.

Thelma Ortiz of Lawrence graduated from the STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) Academy at Greater Lawrence Technical School, thinking she wanted to major in engineering in college.

After one month at a public university, she says she realized “engineering wasn’t for me.”

Discouraged, she left college and went to work full time for a year.

“The process of choosing a major carries a lot of fears,” she says. “I didn’t think I would find something I really wanted. I had to overcome those fears.”

In the fall of 2019, Ortiz was ready for a restart. She enrolled at Northern Essex Community College, determined to explore her interests and find a major—and a career—that was the right fit for her.

Exploring Interests and Options

Ortiz took advantage of all of the resources Northern Essex has available to help students find their path.

Before enrolling in classes, Ortiz met with Eldiane Elmeus, program coordinator for the college’s Exploratory Program, who focused on goal setting, financial planning, and academic planning as part of the new student orientation process. Elmeus also connected her with personality and interest tests and virtual job shadow opportunities to help her hone in on her interests.

What Ortiz discovered, after months of self-assessment and frequent conversations with Elmeus, was that her interests were in the health field.

“Going from STEM to health, I felt pretty surprised,” she says.

Honing In

Deciding on health was only a part of the process. Northern Essex offers 22 associate degrees and certificate in health fields—from nursing to sleep technology—and the next step was choosing a specific program.

Working with the Center for Health Professions—one of five academic centers on campus—Ortiz attended health program information sessions and set up appointments with program coordinators to discuss their programs one-on-one, including academic requirements and career opportunities.

After talking with Jennifer Jackson Stevens, coordinator of the Respiratory Care Program, Ortiz’s direction was clear. “The big picture fell into place,” she says. “I finally understood where I see myself going in the next couple of years, and it felt pretty good.”

Her decision was influenced by her nephew’s struggles with asthma, a disease that respiratory therapists treat. “If I can help people with issues that my family deal with, I would feel highly privileged.”

Since she started, she has taken many of the prerequisites for the program, including Physiological Chemistry, and she plans to take Anatomy & Physiology and one elective, The Short Story, before starting the Respiratory Care Program in the fall of 2021.

Changing Majors is the Norm

According to Jennifer Mezquita, assistant vice president of student affairs, college students change majors an average of three times before getting a degree.

“At Northern Essex, we want to provide students, like Thelma, with the support they need as they are navigating the college journey,” she says.

That exploration starts with a prospective student’s initial contact with an admission recruiter and, once enrolled, it continues with their relationship with an academic advisor with support from services such as the Career Center; the First Year Seminar (FYS) course, a three-credit course which has a career module built into it; and resources offered in the academic centers.

All students also have services available to them including tutoring, academic coaches, academic advisors, counseling, learning accommodations, and more.

“We strive to make all of our services unavoidable,” says Mezquita with a smile.

Focus on the Goal

Ortiz, who is the first in her family to attend college, is deeply appreciate of all the resources Northern Essex provides, and excited about the future.

“I want to walk across that stage wearing my cap and gown and have my family see that I was willing to work hard for something I really wanted,” she says.

To learn more, visit the website or contact or 978 556-3700.

Northern Essex Community College has campuses in both Haverhill and Lawrence. It offers approximately 60 associate degree and certificate programs as well as hundreds of noncredit courses designed for personal enrichment and career growth.  Each year, 6,000 students are enrolled in credit associate degree and certificate programs on the Haverhill and Lawrence campuses; and another 2,000 take noncredit workforce development and community education classes on campus, and at businesses and community sites across the Merrimack Valley.  For more information, visit the website at or call 978-556-3700.