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Merrimack College Commencement Student Speakers Talk Hope, Overcoming Hardships

Jessica Almeida M’23 and Michael Fernandez ’23 addressed Merrimack College’s Class of 2023 during the Baccalaureate Mass and Conferral of Degrees ceremony at Duane Stadium on Friday, May 19.
Photo of Jessica Almeida M’23 and Michael Fernandez ’23 speaking at Merrimack College’s 73rd Commencement exercises.
Jessica Almeida M’23 and Michael Fernandez ’23 addressed the crowd of graduates during Merrimack College’s 73rd Commencement exercises.

Graduate Speaker

Jessica Almeida M’23, the graduate student speaker for Merrimack College’s 73rd Commencement exercises, said she was at a bit of a crossroads after receiving her undergraduate degree in psychology in music from Assumption University.

“I’ve always loved music, particularly singing,” she said. “I originally went to school with the intention of being a music therapist. But the longer I was studying both music and psychology I realized that music was more of a passion in terms of a hobby and psychology felt like something that I could really turn into a career.”

Luckily, one of her friends sent her a link to Merrimack’s fellowship in school counseling from the Winston School of Education and Social Policy.

“A little lightbulb went off,” she said. “I was taking a clinical seminar during my last year at Assumption (and) I had taken a counseling psychology course. Those were the ones I was the most interested in, so it kind of seemed silly that I didn’t notice it sooner.”

Almeida said while she loved her two years at Merrimack, it also came with some downsides. The pressures of the master’s program led to some mental health struggles that she fought to overcome.

“That’s what the majority of my speech was about,” she explained. “The trials and tribulations of being a grad student impacted me and I think it’s important to acknowledge that because we tend to be so silent about mental health.”

Christina Soto, assistant dean for student advising and services at the School of Nursing and Health Sciences, recognized Almedia’s strength and nominated her as the commencement graduate speaker. 

“I had the honor of working with Jessica for the 2021-22 academic year,” Soto said. “In the first few days of working with her I felt this calming but vibrant energy that just penetrates even the most stressed person. I did not have Jess as a student but if I had a guess she was eager to learn and always willing to challenge herself to do better.”

Almeida was recently hired to work full-time as a school counselor at Quinn Middle School in Hudson, Massachusetts. She previously served as a long-term substitute school counselor at Bedford High School while completing her master’s degree.

“The future’s looking bright,” Almeida said with a smile. 

Undergraduate speaker

As an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, Michael Fernandez ’23 knows the importance of good legal representation. Because of this, he hopes to one day become an immigration lawyer so he can help people who are in similar circumstances find success.

“If I did it, I believe anyone can do it,” he said.

Fernandez received his degree in criminology and criminal justice with a minor in pre-law and political science. In the fall, he’ll attend New England Law | Boston to pursue a master’s degree.

“As a student, Michael exhibited an unyielding tenacity and drive toward his academic experience which resulted in his incredible success as a student at Merrimack College,” said Raymond Mooney, professor of practice for the Criminology and Criminal Justice program. “When I learned that Michael was chosen as a speaker to represent his class, it was met with no surprise. Michael has an extremely bright future, and being part of his journey has been an honor. I can’t wait to watch him develop into an ambassador to the world.”

Growing up in Lawrence, Massachusetts, Fernandez said he’d always wanted to attend Merrimack College. He made his dreams come true in 2020 when transferred, with honors, from North Essex Community College.

“I used to be a delivery driver” before college, Fernandez explained. “Someone ordered food from Merrimack. I was with my friend and he said, ‘We’re never going to be here.’ I said, ‘No, I’m going to be here.’ I applied, I got in, I almost got a full scholarship, so it was possible. It was amazing.”  

In addition to his studies, Fernandez served as president of Merrimack’s Criminology Club and Pre-Law Society, treasurer of the College’s Omicron Delta Kappa chapter and was recognized by the Alpha Phi Sigma honors society.

Fernandez’s speech was about changing the world for the better and how there are no limitations to one’s dreams.

“I remember when I came to the United States from the Dominican Republic I was 10 years old and a dreamer,” reads an excerpt. “I was a dreamer that wanted to excel in school and do my best in every stage in my life. Because where I come from, almost no one completes their education and even fewer make it through college…I can now say that my dream has come true today.”