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NECC Grad Receives National Community College Alumni Award

Submitted by on February 13, 2021 – 8:02 pm

Helen Ubiñas is an award-winning columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News and a 1991 graduate of Northern Essex Community College’s Journalism/Communications Program.

On April 13, she will be recognized as one of the top three community college graduates in the country when she receives the American Association of Community College’s Outstanding Alumni Award. She was nominated by Northern Essex President Lane Glenn and selected from a pool of community college graduates from across the country who have excelled in their chosen fields. This year’s honorees also include the Honorable Thomas Yeotis, a retired judge in Michigan, and Kristen Ziman, the chief of police in Aurora, Illinois.

“Helen is a gifted storyteller who has used her talents to spotlight and create positive change on issues like gun violence, which are impacting the quality of life for Philadelphia residents,” said Glenn. “She is also a champion for community colleges, using her own story to help others understand the important role we play.”

Ubiñas was born and raised in New York City and her family moved to CT her senior year of high school. After her family relocated to the Merrimack Valley (they’ve since moved back to CT), she moved to this area, living in Methuen.

Ubiñas says she arrived at Northern Essex in the fall of 1990 feeling “lost” after a less than stellar semester at a four-year university.

Helen delivering the commencement address to the NECC class of 2015.

As she told Northern Essex graduates when delivering the 2015 featured commencement address, it was at Northern Essex that she discovered her voice as editor of the student newspaper and found friends and teachers whom she says “gave me the confidence to pursue dreams that I didn’t even know I had when I walked in here.” She also met her now husband, Michael Dunne, formerly of Newburyport.

After graduating from Northern Essex, Helen transferred to Boston University, earning a bachelor’s degree.

In 1994, she began reporting for the Hartford Courant and in 2000 she was named the Courant’s first Latina news columnist. She also received numerous awards including a team Pulitzer Prize in 1999 for breaking news coverage of a mass shooting at the Connecticut lottery office, where four people and the gunman were killed.

While working as a columnist for the Hartford Courant, she earned a master’s degree from Trinity College in CT.

In 2012, she was hired as a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News, where she focuses on issues of race, politics, and, most notably, gun violence. Here’s a link to her recent columns.

She’s also received several awards since becoming a columnist in Philadelphia, including first place in column-writing at the 2014 Keystone Press Awards. In 2017, the National Society of Newspaper Columnists awarded her top honors for her columns. In 2018, she was the recipient of the Vernon Jarrett Medal for Journalistic Excellence for a series of columns on gun violence and its impact on Philadelphia teenagers in the aftermath of the deadly mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. Winners of the award, which is administered by Morgan State University’s School of Global Journalism & Communication, must be nominated by someone directly affected by the reporting cited in the nomination.

Left to right, Helen’s parents, Maria and Sixto Ubinas, Helen, and her husband Michael Dunne, a 1991 graduate of NECC at the 2015 NECC Commencement.

And in June of last year, Ubiñas was the first recipient of the Sally Kalson Courage in Journalism Award, which is presented by the Pittsburgh Foundation and recognizes a Pennsylvania broadcast, print, or online journalist whose work demonstrates “fearlessness, fortitude, and excellence.”

In presenting the award, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and best-selling author James Steele, who served on the Kalson Award committee, wrote “No one writes about the tragedy of gun violence with more compassion and feeling than Helen Ubiñas. Her columns on the young, innocent victims of gunfire are heartbreaking and left us grieving with the families whose lives were forever shattered by these random, senseless acts of violence.”

Ubiñas says that as a journalist, she’s motivated “to use my platform, which I realize every day is a privilege, to amplify the voices and stories and lives of those we often choose to ignore.”

Her insightful coverage has allowed many underrepresented voices to be heard, and Northern Essex is proud that she discovered her voice here.

Ubinas is active on twitter. You can follow her @notesfromhel

Northern Essex Community College has campuses in both Haverhill and Lawrence. It offers more than 60 associate degree and certificate programs as well as hundreds of noncredit courses designed for personal enrichment and career growth.  Each year, more than 5,000 students are enrolled in credit associate degree and certificate programs on the Haverhill and Lawrence campuses; and another 2,600 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.