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New Department of Higher Education Commissioner Visits NECC

Submitted by on January 26, 2023 – 3:08 pm

Lawrence, MA (January 24, 2023)– Leaders from the city of Lawrence and Northern Essex Community College gathered on Tuesday morning to welcome the Commonwealth’s new Commissioner of Higher Education, Noe Ortega. The visit included a roundtable discussion at the El Hefni Allied Health and Technology Center. NECC President Lane Glenn presented a brief history of the development of the Lawrence Campus and shared how public and private partnerships made much of it possible.

Four men sit in a row listening to student stories

NECC President Lane Glenn, DHE Commissioner Noe Ortega, SUCCESS Senior Project Director, Massachusetts Association of Community Colleges (MACC) Lutful Khan, Associate Commissioner of Research and Planning at the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education Mario Delci

Following the presentation, Glenn and Ortega fielded various questions from the group on topics affecting higher education, including enrollment, equity, affordability, and the role of Northern Essex in the community of Lawrence.

“One thing that has always been important to me is affordability,” said Ortega. “I want to make sure that every student who’s being prepared and recruited to go to college thinks about the choices they have. We live in a time where the cost limits that choice. Anything we can do as a state to advocate for affordability, we need to do.”

Interim Dean of Health Services Kathy Hudson then led Ortega and a small group on a tour of the classrooms and labs in the El Hefni building. Stops included the maternity simulation room, with blinking and breathing mother and child teaching mannequins, and the fully operational ambulance embedded in the building’s first floor.

Following the tour, Ortega met with students in NECC’s SOAR Program. The program provides wraparound support for vulnerable students, such as advising, career counseling, and community-building events. Students shared stories of how they struggled early in their college careers and how SOAR helped them find their footing.

“If I had this when I first started in 2009, I would have finished a long time ago,” said Eudania Chucha Aquino, a Human Services major who now works for the SOAR program. “It really pushed me and showed me how to grow.”

“It takes a lot to ask for help. In some cases, it takes a lot to accept that help,” responded Ortega. “Because each of your stories begins with an intention that didn’t work out, but you got help in a judge-free zone with people who have no interest in making you further carry the weight of your story. They’re making sure that from this point on, you’re moving forward and succeeding.”

The program is part of a statewide SUCCESS initiative, which is modeled after Northern Essex’s Pathways to Academic and Career Excellence (PACE)  Program, a federally-funded student support services program. President Glenn was instrumental in lobbying for the creation of the SUCCESS Fund (Supporting Urgent Community College Equity through Student Services). Thanks to support from state legislators, funding was included in this last year’s state budget to provide similar services across the Commonwealth’s 15 community colleges.

A native of Corpus Christi, Texas, Ortega comes to Massachusetts from Pennsylvania, where he served as the Secretary of Education since 2020. He spent the eight years prior at the University of Michigan, where he held several roles, including Assistant Director and Senior Research Associate at the National Center for Institutional Diversity and as the Managing Director for the National Forum on Higher Education for the Public Good. He replaces Carlos Santiago, who stepped down from the role last year. Ortega was sworn in this past November.