Daniela Chavez-Hernandez’s road to graduation from Northern Essex Community College was never easy, despite appearances.
She balanced membership in Phi Theta Kappa, a national community college honor society; roles in the Early Childhood Education club and Pathways to Academic and Career Excellence (PACE); working full time as a preschool teacher at the Greater Lawrence Community Action Council’s Child Care Center; and scoring a near perfect 3.96 grade point average, all while raising Brianna, her 2-year old daughter.
“It took me seven years to get that two-year associate degree,” she said. “To me, it means the world.”
The college selected Chavez-Hernandez, 27, to be the student speaker, representing over 1,000 graduates at the 55th annual commencement exercises May 20 on the Haverhill campus. She noted the dedication of the school’s professors in helping her succeed, and Kristen Arnold, an adviser with the PACE program.
Immigrating from Mexico to Arizona with her mother and three sisters when she was 16, Chavez-Hernandez spoke no English. After her father died “in a horrible accident, on my first birthday,” her mother, Blanca Hernandez, worked multiples jobs to support her daughters.
Chavez-Hernandez began pursuing a college degree seven years ago in Arizona. Her life detoured when she met John Torres, who was visiting the area on vacation. They fell in love. In 2015, she moved from Arizona to Lawrence to be with him, continuing her studies at Northern Essex.
“I lost 11 credits when I transferred,” she said. “It hurts me when I think how hard I had worked for it.” But leaving everything behind — school, work, and family — “It was the best decision of my life.”
Of finally getting her degree, Chavez-Hernandez said, “It takes a lot of dedication and sacrifice. I work, then when I come home, I do homework after [Brianna] goes to sleep. I sacrifice my sleep.
“But I’m teaching her a good lesson, creating a love for learning and hard work. It’s definitely a pattern. My mother worked so hard for us. I didn’t appreciate my mom as much back then.”
This fall, Chavez-Hernandez, now living in Dracut, will attend Salem State University, where she plans to pursue bachelor and master’s degrees in social work. She will use her education to continue working with underprivileged kids and their families.
As for her advice to fellow graduates, it’s this: “Be the best you can be — whether it’s work or school. Don’t let anyone underestimate you.”
Kathy Shiels Tully can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.