The Year of the Nurse
NECC Program Celebrates Half a Century
In 1969, 18-year-old Margaret Fitzgerald stood before the board of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges to witness a unique honor: the accreditation of the brand new Northern Essex Community College (NECC) nursing program.
At the time, NECC was just in its ninth year of operation, with only a handful of small programs in the books. Fitzgerald was among the first students to enroll in NECC’s newest program, and would be among the first to graduate from it the following year. She remembers the accreditation process as the high point of her time at NECC.
“It was an incredibly affirming and intoxicating experience,” Fitzgerald says. “I was selected as the sole student representative to stand beside NECC’s first president, Harold Bentley, and it was the first time in my life that someone had pulled me to the side and told me I had leadership potential. That moment, and that kindness, has stayed with me throughout my career.”
Fitzgerald, who is now a doctor of nursing practice (DNP), owns her own health care training center and serves as a nurse practitioner at Greater Lawrence Family Health Center (GLFHC), couldn’t have predicted in that moment more than 50 years ago just how much she — or the program — would evolve.
The introduction of nursing welcomed a new era for the college, one that would elevate its status as an important training ground for health professionals who would serve the region. Over the next half-century, more than 3,500 students received degrees from the program. Many of them have chosen to live in and serve the communities in which they were trained.
Area employers, including GLFHC, have often lauded the success of the nursing program.
“The graduates of the program have been among the best and most committed nurses on our staff,” says John Silva, GLFHC’s president and CEO. “[They are] always focused on providing a high level of health care to our patients and the diverse Greater Lawrence community in a caring and culturally competent way.”
The nursing program is now broadly considered one of the best in the Commonwealth. For two consecutive years, its licensed practical nursing (LPN) program was ranked number one in Massachusetts by PracticalNursing.org due to its 100% pass rate for the NCLEX-PN exam. Its graduates have gone on to work as registered nurses, nurse practitioners, flight nurses, wellness experts and more.
Many students are able to begin working in field-related positions while enrolled at NECC, a process that accelerated this past spring with the arrival of COVID-19. Rosalyn Delequexe, a current student and certified nursing assistant (CNA), was among those brought on to work as part of a COVID-19 relief team in Massachusetts. She considers the experience inspiring.
“Working in health care isn’t a job for me, it’s a calling,” she says. “The nurses here are short-staffed and I wanted to do my part.”
The idea of doing one’s part — even in the most dire of circumstances — has held strong among NECC’s decades of nursing graduates, some of whom were putting in 12-hour shifts during the height of the pandemic in the spring.
The celebration of NECC nursing’s 50th class of graduates comes at the same time the World Health Organization is observing the International Year of the Nurse and the Midwife, marking 200 years since the birth of Florence Nightingale. Moreover, it is the year that has tested and bolstered our health care system, providing a nuanced understanding of the significant role frontline workers play in keeping our community strong.
These days, with such rapid and often unpredictable changes occurring in the industry, it might be hard to envision where the field of nursing will go from here — but if we do know one thing it’s this: It will involve NECC.