"HCC was my first choice. I was here for one semester back in 2013. I was part of the Student Senate then, and I just really liked the sense of community that HCC offered." – Ashley Lessard
Ashley Lessard had tried college a few times before. Each time, though, she stopped out, and for a variety of reasons: anxiety, depression, uncertainty about her direction, and, finally, finances.
"The first time I had a lot of mental health issues, and so I had to take a break to focus on myself and try to figure out what I wanted to do," she said. "I've jumped around from school to school."
One thing recently brought her back again: MassReconnect, the state's new free college program for residents 25 and older. Last August, just as the program was rolling out, Lessard was scrolling around Facebook when she saw an ad for it and learned she met all the MassReconnect requirements.
"I'm over 25, I reside in Mass, and I've never completed a degree," she remembers thinking. "I'm gonna apply."
Through MassReconnect, she could have attended any community college in the state. But Lessard, a Springfield native and resident, chose HCC.
"HCC was my first choice," she said. "I was here for one semester back in 2013. I was part of the Student Senate then, and I just really liked the sense of community that HCC offered."
Now in her second semester as a returning student, Lessard, 34, a human services major, is once again a member of Student Senate, as well as publicity chair for HCC's chapter of the National Society of Leadership and Success. She gets support through HCC's TRIO program and also belongs to SAMP, the college's Student Ambassador Mentorship Program.
She's proud of her success.
"The fact that I ended up getting a 3.6 GPA last semester was amazing," Lessard said. "I'm very happy. I love feeling a sense of welcome. It's really homey here."
What classes are you taking this semester?
Three human services classes, a psych class and a statistics class. So, a full plate.
What's been your favorite class so far?
I took nutrition last semester with Marissa Chiapperino. Really fun. I got an A.
What interests you about human services?
One day I would like to work as an academic advisor / counselor. I have an empathetic ear. I like listening to people and helping people.
What are your goals as a student senator?
I try to be voice of the people. If there's something wrong on campus, I want to fix that issue, like having a hunger-free campus would be amazing.
What's been your biggest challenge as a returning student?
Time management. For the past year I've been working overnights the front desk at the hotel for MGM Springfield, and taking the bus to campus right after work.
What do you do at MGM?
I work at the front desk of the hotel, so I check people In and check people out, listen to their stories, and recommend good food.
Overnights are rough.
The good news is I start a new job on Feb. 16 at Medexpress Urgent Care in Springfield , which is right near my house. It's 12 hour shifts, three days a week., and no more overnights for me!
What's the most important thing you've learned at HCC?
People at HCC are very supportive of each other. It doesn't matter what you've done previously or in the past. People are empathetic.
What's been your most meaningful or memorable experience at HCC?
Most memorable would be when I first arrived again after so many years and seeing the Campus Center. I hadn't stepped foot on campus in 10 years. The Campus Center is so beautiful now. I love it.
What else are you involved in?
I'm in the Disney Club. I'm a huge Disney nerd. My favorite character is Belle from Beauty and the Beast, because she is a reader, and I've always been a reader. I also hope to be working soon as a SAMP mentor. It's a paid internship and right up my alley. I'm also hoping to get a summer internship in Admissions or Advising. I'd love to do that.
Any long-term plans?
I might transfer back to Post University in Connecticut, which was my last school before HCC, or maybe go to Westfield State. I'd love to come back to HCC as a staff member, eventually, and work here as an advisor.
INTERVIEW and PHOTOS by CHRIS YURKO: (Above) Ashley Lessard stops at the selfie station at the Scholarship Resource Center. (Thumbnail) Ashley Lessard.