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The Faces of First-Gen Students at UMass Lowell

By November 7, 2019

By Dr. Matthew Hurwitz, Director of the River Hawk Scholars Academy at UMass Lowell

Here at UMass Lowell, where 4 out of every 10 of our undergraduate students would be the first in their family to complete a 4-year college degree, we are always thinking about what it takes to make sure we understand the fullness of these students’ experiences. We must do so, for if we want to ultimately support their educational journey all the way through to graduation, we need to account for their entire selves, their personal and social well-being, their growth as learners and as people. This is the guiding principle of the River Hawk Scholars Academy, the academic support program for first-year, first-generation college students that I have the honor of directing.

Scaling this approach is never easy, for it is often dependent on careful conversations, building trust with students, cross-departmental collaboration, and using technology and other resources to help us communicate and act quickly and efficiently. Even as we know we must build systems and processes to manage student data and act on that data, we also strive to treat each student as the quirky, singular individual they are (indeed, it’s the technology that often gives us the space to put our attention where it’s needed most: the student sitting in front of us at this very moment).

To do that, it helps to see them, really see them, not for who we want them to be, but for who they are in truth. Here’s what we see when we look and we listen:

DebbyWe see Debby, a sophomore psychology major who has persevered in spite of great adversity to become a leader and mentor to other first-gen students. Debby’s mother moved to America from Haiti to create a better life for Debby’s older sister. Debby was born in America and, because of her family’s financial struggles, “dealt with a lot of financial stress” her whole life, stress compounded by her mother’s significant health issues.

Coming to UMass Lowell was not an easy decision for Debby, who wanted nothing more than to help her struggling mother:
“It was very easy to feel like I could just save her, but I had to think about saving myself first. It’s hard to take a step back from someone you love like that. Since I’ve come here, everything I do, I do for my mom, because when I graduate with a degree, I want to go back and help my mom.”

Debby’s someone who has turned struggle into strength, and in turn uses her strength to raise others. As Debby herself puts it, “being first-gen is being behind the starting line but being still able to catch up and having that strength and determination to push through.”

GraceWe see Grace, a first-year nursing major who has taken full advantage of the opportunities she’s earned by matriculating at UMass Lowell. Grace’s journey here wasn’t easy as she has dealt with serious mental health problems, and now that she’s here she has tried to make the most of what she views as a second chance at life. She sees how:

“As a first-generation college student, college as a River Hawk Scholars Academy member is very empowering. I have the opportunity to succeed and grow as a student and a person. I feel like my life is really going somewhere, whereas in the past, I never would have imagined to be where I am today. My core mission is to help people get up, because I know what it’s like to fall.”

EdgardoWe see Edgardo, a first-year civil engineering major whose family gave up everything they had to immigrate to America from Honduras and Mexico. Edgardo is from Washington, D.C. and ended up at UMass Lowell as part of our innovative DC-CAP collaboration to bring 20 scholarship students to our university from the D.C. area. Edgardo is trailblazing at another level as he would be the first person in his entire extended family to get a college degree. As Edgardo shared:

“It’s an honor for me to be in college. I hope that one day I’ll make the family proud. I’m really honored and proud to be that person who can change our family’s life.”

And we see Danelia, a criminal justice and sociology sophomore. Danelia chose UMass Lowell in part because of the River Hawk Scholars Academy and her desire to seek a diverse campus with students like her who were first-gen. DaneliaBeing first-gen means everything to Danelia, who “grew up around a lot of violence” and has experienced a level of heartache and struggle that most of us, if we’re lucky, can barely comprehend:

“Taking a lot of pride in being first-generation is telling myself, ‘Look, you learned what not to do, but you also created this path for your nieces and your nephews for what to do, so I take a lot of pride in that because it means positive change.”

Danelia is so committed to using her education to help others, that this past summer, while visiting her grandmother’s native country of Honduras, she spent the little money she had and a month of her time to essentially repair, re-supply, and teach in the kindergarten class housed in the very school her grandmother founded. After Danelia’s grandmother passed away earlier this year, Danelia promised to “take care of what she left behind” and continues that work today with fundraising efforts to continue to support the education of the children in her grandmother’s school.

Danelia teachingWe see each of these students, and for every one of their stories, there are hundreds and thousands more, all equally compelling, vibrant, and true. They are the people in front of us, and to honor their journey, we must use the power we wield to build technology and systems that can help see their way through college to their life after graduation. Just think about what a difference they’ll be making then.

Feeling inspired? I know I am. Check out this Future of Higher Ed webinar to hear from other higher education institutions that are creating a better future for all types of learners.


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About the author
Dr. Matthew HurwitzDr. Matthew Hurwitz is the director for UMass Lowell’s first-generation college student academic support program, River Hawk Scholars Academy, and a faculty member in English. His mission with the Academy is to make evidence-based decisions about interventions for first-gen students that are supported by robust research and that will make a real difference in the lives of students.