student embrace stories

Students Embrace MassReconnect: Stories of Inspiration and Access

Governor Healey’s historic MassReconnect program, launched in 2023, made community college free for students 25 and over without prior degrees. The data show MassReconnect’s far-reaching impact, and student stories highlight how the program has changed lives.

Student: Pedro Rentas of Haverhill

Pedro Rentas of Haverhill began the business transfer associate degree program at Northern Essex Community College (NECC) last fall. He is from the Dominican Republic, where he was born in the city of San Pedro de Macoris, raised in the city of Higüey, and worked in radio broadcast and banking.

“I’m amazed by the opportunity. I’m trying to spread the word to other Spanish-speakers in my community because many people don’t know about the program.”

Rentas was cleaning bathrooms when he first arrived in the U.S. He studied English and later landed a role at a bank in customer service. He was initially going to enroll in a certificate program at NECC, but after learning about MassReconnect, he decided to earn his associate degree. “I’m amazed by the opportunity,” he said, “I’m trying to spread the word to other Spanish-speakers in my community, because many people don’t know about the program.”

One of the ways Rentas is spreading the word is through TikTok, where he has built a following, in part by sharing recipes. On campus, Rentas has received honors for his academic success and made the Dean’s list. He also completed NECC’s mental health first aid certification, which prepares learners to respond when someone is experiencing a mental health emergency or emotional distress.

As Rentas prepares to graduate in spring 2025, he thinks frequently about others who have shared his journey and aspirations. “I want to dedicate my honors and graduation to all the immigrants that come to the United States for a better life,” he said.

Student: Rick LaMonica of Medway

Rick LaMonica of Medway is a psychology and sociology major at MassBay Community College, where he was on his fourth attempt at completing a college degree when he heard about MassReconnect.

“I was always hesitant to take too many classes at once,” said LaMonica. “I didn’t want to take out too many loans. I would procrastinate registering for classes. It felt like there was no end in sight.” When LaMonica went to fill out his FAFSA last year, he learned about MassReconnect. “This isn’t real,” he first thought.

“Someone was investing in me. It lit a fire. I ended up enrolling in three classes and doing really well.”

But once LaMonica was convinced of the program’s authenticity, he was motived. “Someone was investing in me. It lit a fire,” he said. “I ended up enrolling in three classes and doing really well.” LaMonica has made the Dean’s list in both semesters since.

After years of inching toward an associate degree, LaMonica met with an adviser and built a plan: graduating from MassBay in 2024, a bachelor’s in psychology by 2026, and then a master’s in counseling. LaMonica has another motivator to complete his bachelor's degree by 2026 – it’s the year his oldest son will finish high school. This summer, LaMonica will complete his associate degree, and in the fall, he begins his bachelor’s degree at Northeastern University.

Student: Deaux-Deaux Thibodeaux of Pittsfield

Deaux-Deaux Thibodeaux of Pittsfield is a Berkshire Community College (BCC) student who graduated from high school over a decade ago. MassReconnect allowed them to leave a job as a guard and attend college full-time. They hold work-study positions at BCC and work at a local hospital, which helps build experience for Thibodeaux’s future as a nurse. In addition to studying nursing, Thibodeaux said MassReconnect allowed an elective course, within the area of study in mechatronics, for future use in building medical technology.

Thibodeaux has become an advocate for the financial aid program, recruiting others in the Pittsfield community to enroll. “You see the light come on in their eyes,” they said of people’s reactions upon learning about MassReconnect. They can relate, as MassReconnect has also given them a chance at a better life and Thibodeaux has enjoyed being a student. “I really love my professors,” they said.

Thibodeaux also takes part in STEM Starter Academy (SSA) at BCC, a Department of Higher Education program that supports community college students studying in STEM fields. Thibodeaux is eager to continue their studies after earning an associate degree. They are looking to transfer to a four-year institution and ultimately plan to earn a doctorate in nurse anesthesia (DNP-NA).

Student: Michael Hannigan of Amherst

Michael Hannigan of Amherst enrolled in the permaculture program at Greenfield Community College (GCC) last fall, after having worked at the University of Massachusetts for 20 years as a dishwasher, custodian and in dining services. Hannigan’s UMass role included managing food deliveries, which was a window into the work he is doing now. “I always pictured myself on the other side of the loading dock,” he said.  

Hannigan sought to bring that picture to life when he enrolled at GCC with an interest in farming. That interest led to a passion after he learned about food insecurity in one of his classes. With this passion, and the newfound freedom to become engaged on campus due to the financial support of MassReconnect, Hannigan has become a leader. 

“I used to think government didn’t have a big impact on my life. MassReconnect changed that: it’s tangible, and I’m benefitting in ways that allow me to give back.”   

He re-established the College’s long-dormant permaculture club, which he kicked off by hosting a free farmer’s market; interned at Stone Soup Café, which serves a pay-what-you-can weekly meal; and was elected by his classmates to be the student representative on GCC’s Board of Trustees. “I used to think government didn’t have a big impact on my life,” said Hannigan. “MassReconnect changed that: it’s tangible, and I’m benefitting in ways that allow me to give back.”  

Hannigan plans to someday own a farm that partners with the local community to address food insecurity, and he wants to be part of developing next-generation farming techniques as climate change harms the industry – and the supply of fresh, nutritious foods.  He expects to graduate in 2025 with an associate degree in Farm and Food Systems.