Finding a Fresh Start: Meet the Students of MassReconnect
The state’s MassReconnect Program just began two months ago, and already it’s changing lives. The program allows Massachusetts adults over 25 who don’t already have a college degree to earn one for free at the state’s community colleges. As of the start of the fall semester, 144 Northern Essex Community College students have received awards from MassReconnect, totaling $339,000, an average of $2,300 per student.
Jose Cervantes, 38 Years Old, Lowell
Jose Cervantes is no stranger to hard work. Even as a teenager at Greater Lowell Technical High School, he worked 40 hours a week. And when he graduated in 2003, he went right into the masonry field. He’s worked for the same company since.
“I have a busy schedule. I leave the house at 5:45 in the morning. But lately, I’ve been thinking, ‘I can’t be a mason my whole life,’” says Cervantes. Still, he was unsure how to afford the time and the money to pursue another career, especially as a dad to a 12-year-old daughter.
He found his answer through a chance encounter with one of his customers. She told him about the MassReconnect program and connected him with Enrollment Services at Northern Essex. Suddenly, an idea that seemed out of reach was well within his grasp.
“At first, I was hesitant. I thought, ‘Where am I going to find the time?’ Then I thought, ‘You know what, I can show my kid that you can make time to better yourself no matter what life throws at you. And maybe be an inspiration to someone else.’”
Cervantes is now enrolled at NECC as a computer science major. He’s taking classes in the evenings; he often barely has time to go home between work and school. But Cervantes says he already can see it’s well worth it. He notes that his professors are understanding of students like him, who are balancing many priorities, and he sees his work ethic inspires some of his younger classmates.
“I’m not just waiting for class; I’m always researching. When I’m on a job, I put my earbuds in and listen to audiobooks on [operating systems like] Linux,” says Cervantes. “And when I see a younger person that needs help, I want to provide a guiding light.”
He’s also grateful to be setting an example for his daughter. “It’s never too late. You set a goal; if not just for yourself but for those around you, you can accomplish it. It’s easy to get into a rut and make excuses. But MassReconnect takes those excuses out of the equation.”
Rebecca Beaucher, 45 Years Old, Groveland
When Rebecca Beaucher first heard Governor Maura Healey propose the MassReconnect program, her ears instantly perked up. Beaucher had enrolled at Northern Essex twice before and took a few classes. But each time, life got in the way of her finishing.
“The last time I took classes was in the spring of 2019. I worked 40-45 hours a week while my son was in high school. I was worried about being spread too thin,” remembers Beaucher.
Things are different now, though. With her son out of high school and a steady schedule working as an IT business system analyst at Groveland’s AW Chesterton Company, she took the MassReconnect announcement as a sign that it was time to finish what she started.
“The college itch came back. I didn’t have any excuses. This is huge. Credits are currency.”
Beaucher followed along anxiously as the state budget, which included 20 million dollars for MassReconnect, wound its way through the legislature. Governor Healey signed the budget into law on August 9. Beaucher was on the phone with NECC’s Enrollment Services on August 10.
“I was ecstatic. I’m making appointments and contacting people, saying, ‘I’m ready. Let’s go!’ Everyone was kind and accommodating. Any fears I had were alleviated.”
Beaucher is now enrolled as a Business Transfer major. She’s taking two accelerated classes which meet entirely online over the span of just seven weeks. Beaucher appreciates having the option to go at her own pace. And at this rate, she may be done soon. When advisors factored in classes from years ago, they helped her realize she already had nearly half the credits she needed to complete her degree.
“I tell everyone about this program, especially coworkers. You have nothing to lose except that feeling you carry of not finishing what you started.”
Coleen Sharn, 58 Years Old, Haverhill
For most of her adult life, Coleen Sharn didn’t give much thought to going back to college. She’d taken a few classes at NECC and at Salem State University over the years. But she had a stable job in accounts receivable at a local company where she’d worked since she was 21, and she lived a comfortable life in Haverhill with her husband and their son. Then, her world got turned upside down.
In 2020, just months after losing her father, Sharn’s husband contracted COVID and wound up in the ICU at Lawrence General Hospital. He fought for four weeks but eventually succumbed to the virus.
In reflecting on the dark time, Sharn noted one bright spot: the care her husband received at Lawrence General. It inspired her to explore career options in the healthcare field. “I knew I needed a change. I wanted to get my foot in the door,” Sharn says. “I kept saying I was going to look into it, and finally, I got up the courage to call [Northern Essex] and ask about classes.”
Her timing happened to be impeccable. Northern Essex Enrollment Services had just started processing students under the new MassReconnect Program. Sharn hadn’t heard about the program yet and was ecstatic to learn that she would qualify for free tuition, fees, and materials. “I thought it was too good to be true! I thought this was just an amazing opportunity, especially now that I’m on a single income.”
Sharn says she was also encouraged to hear about academic coaching and tutoring available to students. After being away from school for 38 years, she expects she will need help getting back into the swing of things. Luckily, she has some built in support, too. Her son, Matt, is a communications major at NECC and he’s already promised to help her with the technical side of things- like navigating some of the platforms for classwork. Sharn is completing the final steps for enrollment now, and she plans to start taking classes toward her Healthcare Technician Certificate, with a specialization in phlebotomy in fall session II.
“Going back to school is a combination of anxiousness and excitement. My family is proud of me; I know my husband would be.”
To learn more about the program, who qualifies, and how to enroll, visit necc.mass.edu/massreconnect.