A Bittersweet Graduation

03/16/2011
By Used with permission from the Lowell Sun Online By SUSAN McMAHON Sun Staff

LOWELL In an office surrounded by pictures of family, with the work of her adopted family humming outside the door, Ellen Duggan tries to find the words to describe what that last day of work will be like.
"You can't be as happy as I've been here and leave ..."

She pauses.

"Yeah, it's bittersweet. It's definitely bittersweet."

Duggan arrived on the UMass Lowell campus (Lowell Technological Institute at the time) one year removed from the convent, the first female resident director at the formerly all-male dormitories. When a group of women was first assigned to one of the housing annexes at the school, Duggan was there.

Thirty-two years later, now the dean of students, Duggan is retiring after witnessing two school name changes, new buildings, an influx of women and minority students, and a growing resident population.

But as much as things have changed, one thing has remained the same the students.

"The kind of student that comes to Lowell hasn't changed. They're very pragmatic, very easy to work with. Their work ethic is very admirable," she said.

Her commitment to the students, which nearly every other administrator cited as one of her greatest strengths, also hasn't changed. It is what has made her so good at what she does, they said.

"She's someone who just put herself heart and soul into trying to provide for whatever need students have. She feels like the students at Lowell are the campus' greatest asset," said Thomas Taylor, associate dean of students. "We're going to miss her tremendously."

Duggan is one of about 44 faculty and staff at UMass Lowell who will retire in June. Many took advantage of the state's early-retirement plan, leaving the university without some of its most experienced staff.

Duggan certainly fits into that category. A former nun, she began her career at UMass Lowell as a resident director, living in the dorms with the students, and eventually moved up to assistant dean of students and dean of students.

Under her watch are a number of campus services, including resident life, campus police, career services, the counseling center, disability services and student health services.

One change that she has especially welcomed is the influx of disabled students. The open-arms policy to the physically challenged was a concept ahead of its time, fellow administrators said.

"To this day, we have a lot of students with severe disabilities, and I think it's because of the reputation the school has. She's been doing things well before they were required by law," said Jacqueline Moloney, director of the university's continuing-studies and corporate education program.

But the first change on-campus, and the one that brought her to UMass Lowell, was the integration of women into the technical college. Duggan remembers a group of women who pitched a tent on the university's front lawn until they were allowed some space in one of the dorms.

After that, floor after floor and dorm after dorm fell to women.

"I always likened it to a Pac-Man thing. First women were in one annex, then the next one and the next one," Duggan said.

The face of the campus has changed in Duggan's 32 years, from an all-white, all-male, 18-to-22-year-old student body to one with all colors, all genders and all ages.

Duggan never expected to see things change as much as she has. Nor did she expect to see 32 years go by in one place.

"I'm not sure, when I came here, I thought this would be my forever job," she said. "I don't think I came here with the intent of making it my life's work."

But being involved with student services got her hooked. Between interacting every day with the administrators and students in student services "my family," she calls them and fielding whatever students threw at her, the dean of the 12,000-strong student body knew in the morning that each day would be completely different from the last.

"Just when you think you've seen it all, you say, 'Wow, I've never seen that before,'" she said.

Retirement will be an adjustment one Duggan is looking forward to.

Shopping on Tuesdays. Taking up golf. Traveling the country. Spending time in Maine.

Not too shabby for someone approaching her 59th birthday. But that doesn't mean Duggan won't miss the family she's left behind. She still plans to keep in touch with students and faculty, dropping in every now and again.

But for now, she's moving forward, looking toward the life of a retired educator.

"You're really part of the fabric of the lives of students. It will be a hard separation. I've never defined myself by my work but I'm sure my motor will still be running," she said.