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It Starts at Home

Alum Dotty Boivert sits on a bench outside Coburn Hall at UMass Lowell
In gratitude to two aunts who made college possible, Dotty Boisvert ’82, ’86, ’92 is helping students who aren’t as fortunate.

12/01/2017
By Geoffrey Douglas

Dorothy ("Dotty") Lozowski Boisvert was only two years old when she and her mother Millie, barely afloat financially, moved in with her grandmother and two aunts at their secondfloor tenement apartment in the Back Central neighborhood of Lowell—where they would all later be joined by her father and her two sisters. There was food enough for everyone, but very little money—and even less room. 

"It was very tight living, eight of us in only five rooms," says Boisvert '82, '86, '92. "There was always a line for the bathroom. My father would often give up and go to the one in the bar around the corner." 

Boisvert would remain there with her extended family through her childhood and teens, until her marriage in 1971. 

"My aunts, Rita and Dot, they took care of everything—school, food, shoes, winter coats, whatever we needed. They just took care of us. It was that way right from the start." 

The arrangement was clear-cut: Aunt Dot did the cooking, housekeeping and caretaking, while Aunt Rita, who left the house every morning (as did Boisvert's mother) for her full-time secretarial job, paid the bills. But it was about much more than that—especially with Rita. 

"She supported us in everything we did, especially when it came to education. She was our guide, our moral compass. When we showed an interest in something, she'd always encourage it." 

Boisvert remembers, as a little girl, going with Rita for the first time to the Museum of Science in Boston: "And I loved it right away. I just looked around and thought, ‘Wow, this is for me!' And from that time on, she encouraged my interest in science. Even years later, during my time in graduate school, she typed my papers and helped me with my dissertation. Whatever it took, Aunt Rita would do it. Education was important to her. 

"Part of it, I think, was that she was very smart herself. In today's world, she would have gone to law school, probably. She could have done so many things with her life. But it was a different time. And she and my Aunt Dot, both—they were women of their time." 

Her teenage years behind her, Boisvert pursued her scientific bent right through a B.S. from Merrimack College in clinical lab sciences. Her horizons expanded to embrace education: she earned a master's degree in educational administration in 1982, followed by a CAGS degree in educational leadership four years later, both from the University of Lowell, and finally a doctorate from the UMass Lowell College of Education in 1992. 

“UMass Lowell allowed me to have a career instead of just a series of jobs.” -Betty Boisvert ’82, '86, ’92
For part of that time, she was employed at ULowell, in the Clinical Laboratory Sciences Department, prepping labs for the classes that would follow. One day, during a faculty shortage in the late '70s, as she recalls it, the department head approached her with the question, "Do you think you could teach these labs on your own?" She did—and for the next five years she filled in as a de facto member of the faculty, while pursuing her master's degree. 

In 1983, her master's in hand, she went to work at Fitchburg State University as a professor of biology. She would remain there nearly 30 years—eventually serving first as department chair of clinical lab sciences, later as dean of graduate and continuing education, and finally returning to her job as professor—before retiring in 2012. 

Meanwhile, as Rita, Dot and Millie grew older, their capabilities declined. By the mid-1980s, no longer working, living on a fixed income and growing more and more frail, they all were less and less able to manage. "My aunts didn't drive,'" says Boisvert, "and my mother's driving skills were limited. They needed someone to take them around to do errands or to the doctor, all those sorts of things." 

In 1985, Boisvert and her former husband, in a move that closed the family circle in what she views today as "the only right thing to do," put a dormer on their house and took in all three women, who would live there the next 20 years until they died, one by one, between 2001 and 2009. 

For nearly all of this time, Boisvert had been contributing faithfully, but modestly, every year to the UMass Lowell Alumni Fund. Now she wants to do more. 

"UMass Lowell allowed me to have a career instead of just a series of jobs," she says. "The master's degree got me to Fitchburg State [and] the CAGS degree got me tenure, while the doctorate helped me go on from there." 

Nearly as important, she says, were "the very close relationships" she had with members of the faculty in the College of Education academic advisers Dorothy Meyer, Bill Phelan and Brenda Jochums-Slez. Perhaps her closest tie was with College Dean Virginia Biggy, who died in 2006. "She took a real chance on me," says Boisvert. "I didn't meet most of the entrance requirements for the master's program, but she let me in anyway. I've always been grateful for that." 

The other reason behind her giving is more personal, and is reflected in the title of the endowment she recently established with the university: The Dorothy M. and Rita C. Leary Memorial Scholarship fund, aimed at the support of students in the College of Education who, as she was all those years ago, are working toward a career teaching chemistry or biology. 

"I know what it is to want to go to school, but to have to find somebody else to pay for it," says Boisvert. "Rita and Dot didn't just encourage us to go—they made certain that we could. I want them to be remembered for that, and I hope that my gift will help others not fortunate enough to have such special aunts."