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Life has Come Full Circle for the 2023 Student Commencement Speaker  

Submitted by on April 25, 2023 – 3:42 pm

Ember Spera of Billerica has been selected as the student speaker for Northern Essex Community College’s 61st Annual Commencement. The ceremony will occur on Saturday, May 13, at 11 am on the college’s Haverhill Campus.

Spera, whose pronouns are they/them and who is receiving their certificate in American Sign Language interpreting, is already familiar with commencement at NECC. After graduating from Innovations Academy Charter School in 2014, they spent a semester at Emmanuel College before realizing it wasn’t the right fit. Spera then enrolled at Northern Essex in January 2015.

Their parents both attended NECC, and their father earned his associate degree in computer science in 1999. Spera’s parents are Deaf, and initially, Spera was interested in studying interpreting. After all, American Sign Language was Spera’s first language, and they had been interpreting for their parents all their life. “The professors described what it takes to be an interpreter, and I thought, ‘I’ve already done this. I want to try something else.'”

Spera was drawn to the flexibility of a Liberal Arts degree. Now the Dean of Liberal Arts, Amy Callahan, was one of Spera’s professors and encouraged them to pursue a journalism degree as well. “We met up after class one day and looked at all of my prerequisites,” remembers Spera. “We realized I would only need another two semesters, and I would graduate with two degrees.” In the meantime, Spera started volunteering on campus. They were the Opinions Editor of the student newspaper, The Observer, and were instrumental in launching the first mobile food market. They even met the person who eventually became their spouse, fellow student Travis (Barrett) Spera.

Ember Spera signed the National Anthem for the Red Sox Opening Day in front of 50,000 fans.

Spera graduated in 2016 with an associate degree in liberal arts and earned an associate degree in communication/journalism in the summer of 2017. Spera transferred to UMass Amherst and was admitted to the highly selective Bachelor’s Degree with Individual Concentration (BDIC) program, which allowed them to build their major. Spera first focused on sustainable communication and media but reevaluated after tragedy struck. Their sister passed away just before their senior year. “After that big loss, I reevaluated my life and switched all my classes to focus more on agriculture journalism. I really found healing through my relationship with plants.”

Less than a year after Spera graduated with their Bachelor of Arts in journalism, another major event changed their trajectory: the Covid-19 pandemic. “Travis and I had both been working in the food service industry in Amherst, and we were left without jobs. Travis had picked up sign language quickly, and the idea of going to school for interpreting was ruminating with them. I said, ‘I think I’m going to join you.’ It was always something I thought I could go back to.”

Both Ember and Travis returned to the familiar surroundings of Northern Essex to pursue this renewed ambition. Each will graduate with their certificate in American Sign Language studies: sign language interpreting on May 13. Ember has a 3.59 GPA and, through internships, has already experienced interpreting for large audiences, such as during the National Anthem on the Red Sox 2023 Opening Day and for several Boston University events. They plan to freelance following graduation to get more experience in various fields.

While graduating from Northern Essex again is cause for celebration, Spera says being chosen as commencement speaker presents another opportunity for a full circle moment. In 2014, they were selected to speak at their high school graduation, but the interpreter for the event didn’t show up, and their parents couldn’t experience the speech. “I had this moment of heartbreak- I’m giving a speech, and the people that I want to hear it the most are my parents, and I didn’t get that. So I signed the speech later at home, but it wasn’t the same. So this really does feel like a second chance. And I know that we will have plenty of interpreters on hand.”

Spera was nominated for student speaker by Kevin Fleese, the program coordinator for the ASL certificate program. Nominations were solicited from the college community and submitted to a committee of faculty and staff who selected Spera as their top choice.

To learn more about Commencement at Northern Essex, visit the website at