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Stop the presses: Student editor’s tale is one for the ages

Isa Grullon’s motto: ‘If it needs to be done, I do it’

Isa Grullon, at Northern Essex Community College.
Isa Grullon, at Northern Essex Community College.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

HAVERHILL — She sits in the newsroom she now leads, an institutional office of white cinderblock walls ringed by flat-screen computer monitors that flash below framed plaques of achievement, testifying to the kind of college journalism for which she is responsible.

Isa Grullon is 34 now. Born in Methuen and raised in Lawrence, she’s a single mom whose life story is worthy of the kind of front-page feature stories on which she cut her teeth, and earned her stripes — the kind of deeply moving tales that helped propel her into the top job at the NECC Observer.

The Observer is the award-winning student newspaper at Northern Essex Community College here, where nearly 70 percent of the 4,715 students are studying part time.

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Yes, they have term papers and final exams — book reports and an ability to decipher complex scientific formulas — but they also have full and rich and complicated lives that are often abstractions to students their age at some of the more richly endowed institutions of higher education.

They are the kind of students that Isa Grullon and her staff write about.

They tell stories about campus theater productions, film festivals, and college life in the age of a killer pandemic. About athletic achievement and student government drama. A rich chronicle of campus life.

Isa Grullon (R) and her daughter, Jeidalyn Bonilla, 15, took their daily walk together through their neighborhood in Lawrence.
Isa Grullon (R) and her daughter, Jeidalyn Bonilla, 15, took their daily walk together through their neighborhood in Lawrence.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

“I like to write about people,” she told me when we sat down in the newsroom she runs. “I’m not a confrontational person. But I don’t shy away from it. If it needs to be done, I do it. And that’s kind of how I feel about everything in life.’'

If it needs to be done, just do it.

Someone should stencil that on a plaque so Isa Grullon can add that to the wall in her newspaper office. Because it begins to tell the story of a young woman who has achieved against steep odds.

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She’s worthy of a headline all her own.

“Everybody at a community college is there for a reason,’' said David Rattigan, a member of the communications faculty at Northern Essex. “And sometimes the reason is simply: I went to another school and screwed up. Or I didn’t study in high school.’'

Sometimes it’s this: Students have second jobs. Or they have parents, or children they’re caring for.

Or this: Other schools are so costly that they’re financially out of reach. Or they don’t allow for the flexibility that working students require.

In other words, real people with real struggles — and real-and-soaring stories of inspiration and success.

That’s Isa Grullon’s story.

“She’s driven and determined, which allows her to surmount any obstacles that come her way,’' said Kim Lyng, an adjunct professor at Northern Essex, where she is the journalism-communication program coordinator.

“She keeps trucking along, and she doesn’t complain. She gets stuff done. She has that grit, and having that will take her a long way in every aspect of her life.’'

Grit. That’s one word for it. There are others: courage, determination, fortitude. And unbridled optimism.

She’s needed all of that. Her life story has demanded it.

Isa Grullon (L) and her daughter, Jeidalyn Bonilla talked together inside their apartment.
Isa Grullon (L) and her daughter, Jeidalyn Bonilla talked together inside their apartment. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

The older of two children, she had a father who worked as a maintenance man in Lowell. She attended Lawrence High School and dropped out because of a high-risk pregnancy, a pregnancy she learned of the day after her 18th birthday.

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Sometimes she stayed with friends, sleeping on the couches of people who became her lifelines. She needed every one of those lifelines.

After her daughter, Jeidalyn, now 15, was born, she went to work at a nearby Kmart and began working toward an administrative assistant certificate, a ticket to a better job.

“Then I started noticing issues with my vision,’' she said.

What followed was a series of medical examinations and doctor visits and a diagnosis of uveitis, a form of eye inflammation that affects the middle layer of tissues in the eye wall, or uvea.

“I would see flashes of light and I thought my bedroom was haunted,’' she said, adding that even after recent surgery she is still dealing with pain and blurred vision. “It was ridiculous.’'

Ultimately, she would be diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

It didn’t diminish her drive for a better life for herself and her daughter. She took a clerical job in an eye doctor’s office, and later for a primary care physician. And then, six years ago, work at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Juggling jobs as a young mom, she was not content with a GED, a drive that has landed her in the editor’s office here.

“I think I give out the vibe that I’m unflappable,’' she told me. “People say that about me all the time: ‘You bring an aura of calmness.’ But inside I’m a mess. I have a good poker face naturally, and I think that is why I gravitated toward journalism. I feel I’m naturally objective.

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“I want things to be fair. I want to play by the rules for the most part. That is if the rules make sense.’'

Along the way, her drive, her determination, her sense of fairness, have impressed those who have watched her journey and have helped steer her toward success.

“I was impressed with her right away,’' said Mary Jo Shafer, an adjunct journalism instructor and faculty adviser to the student newspaper. “She inspires me. She soldiers on and has not given up.

“She really gets journalism. She understands the public service mission of journalism. She’s been so resilient in her own life. She’s pretty unflappable.’'

Jocelyn De Jesus, has known that cool-under-pressure ability since she and Isa Grullon became friends in the sixth grade.

“No one deserves her health conditions,’' de Jesus said. “With everything, she’s pushed herself forward. A single mom who put herself through school, for her to have one more thing to go through now it’s like, ‘Wow! Really?’ Everyone has their battles, but with her, she’s never said anything like: ‘Poor me. Poor me.’ She’s always driving forward.

Driving forward. Up any hill. Around any obstacle. That’s the course Isa Grullon has plotted. And is plotting still.

Working toward that degree that will be hers soon.

“I’ll finally have an associate’s degree,’' she said. “I won’t have to say I’m a high school dropout with a GED. I can say I have something. I do want to continue.

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“I feel like my resume looks amazing. If I can convince someone to bet on me — which I have been able to do in the past — then maybe I can start my career a lot sooner than I might otherwise.’'

It’s a success story. A story of achievement against social and medical odds.

It may not be worthy of an urgent bulletin, but it’s the kind of story that would make the front page in local newspapers mostly everywhere.

An inspirational underdog’s tale under a bold headline that reads: “Against all odds, local woman soars to success.’'

Who wouldn’t want to read all about it?


Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com.