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Criminal Justice Student Chosen for Exclusive Study Abroad Program at The Hague, Netherlands

Submitted by on March 11, 2024 – 5:01 pm

Ask any of Maria Cubias’s friends to describe her, and chances are they’ll use the word “determined” multiple times. The Northern Essex Community College Criminal Justice major, known to those friends as Ampa, has set the bar high for herself and pushes her friends to do the same.

“When we’re studying and getting tired, she’s the one who tells us, ‘No, we’re not done yet. We have more work to do,’” says good friend and NECC journalism student Daniela Valdivia-Terres.

PACE Director Kristen Arnold, Ampa Cubias, Anthony Severino, PACE Data Specialist Christine Carbone and PACE Transfer Advisor Jessica Rocker at MEOA Awards

Ampa’s hard work shows. As a straight-A student, the Haverhill resident was one of six students from across the state awarded a scholarship from the Massachusetts Educational Opportunity Association (MEOA) this fall. This semester, she learned she was selected for the Council for Opportunity: Keith Sherin Global Leaders Program.

Just 20 undergraduate students from the United States were selected for the program to study at The Hague University of Applied Sciences for three weeks. Those students will connect with students from around the world to study courses based on the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals. The classes focus on solving global issues by connecting the public and private sectors.

“When I found out, I was screaming and crying. I couldn’t believe it,” recalls Ampa. She got the news just four days after submitting the application, which led to a flood of emotions. “I’m excited- and scared- to pursue this dream. I remember watching friends in high school travel to Europe, and I never thought I’d be able to go, too.”

Ampa Cubias with awards from the PACE program

Ampa is from El Salvador and was raised in a close-knit family and community there. Their world was shattered when Ampa was 15. As political violence started to spike, one of Ampa’s eight siblings, a brother, was murdered by a ruthless gang. The family made the difficult decision to seek safety by moving to the United States.

They settled in New Jersey, and Ampa became laser-focused on learning English and succeeding in her classwork and athletics. A guidance counselor noticed her efforts and helped her secure a competitive scholarship to attend the prestigious Admiral William Halsey Academy in Elizabeth, NJ. For the next four years, Ampa worked tirelessly and earned a scholarship to a four-year university to play soccer.

Sadly, around the time she was to graduate high school, she learned her mother was facing a serious illness. She put her college dreams on hold to support the family.

“I worked two, three jobs to help pay for her treatment.” Tragically, her mother passed away when Ampa was just 20 years old. “She was the engine that kept me going. I thought, ‘Now what am I going to do?’”

Ampa decided to follow one of her sisters to southern New Hampshire. She first enrolled at a community college there but got discouraged by the college’s English as a Second Language (ESL) program. They also had to cope with the passing of their father in 2019.

“I remember my mom saying, ‘You have to go to school and have to get a career. You have to be someone.’”

So Ampa gave college another try, enrolling in Northern Essex. She says she noticed a huge difference in the ESL offerings compared to her previous college, especially since she could start earning credits right away. She also found a second family in NECC’s  Pathways to Academic & Career Excellence Program (PACE), which provides wrap-around support for first-generation college students. In fact, it was through PACE that she met her friend Valdivia-Terres, who was selected for the Global Leaders Program last year. PACE Director Kristen Arnold helped Ampa apply this year and provided a moving letter of recommendation.

“For her entire life, she has faced obstacles around every corner,” wrote Arnold. “Every time, she has found a way to persevere. She is standing, smiling, and one of the most remarkable students I have ever met.”

Ampa is determined to clear one more hurdle before she can attend the program in June. The NECC Fund is providing a scholarship to cover the cost of tuition. However, Ampa will be unable to work during the three weeks she will be in the Netherlands, and she’s concerned she won’t be able to save enough to cover her regular expenses—like rent—for that time on top of any travel-related expenses. The friends Ampa has supported are rallying to return the favor by helping her set up and publicize a GoFundMe.

For now, Ampa continues to work hard in her classes and in her job as a rehousing case worker with Chelmsford Police and the Middlesex County Sheriff’s Department. She’s on track to graduate in the spring of 2025. Ampa plans to transfer to a four-year school, get her bachelor’s degree and achieve her dream of becoming a crime scene investigator.

“I’ve been through a lot, and I’ve found support along the way. Once I find my dream job, it’ll all be worth it.”

If you’d like to donate to the GoFundMe, you can find the link here.