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UMass Lowell Goes Downtown

By From the Boston Globe

By Karen Sackowitz

When UMass-Lowell graduate student Tina Boyd of Dracut looks out of her dormitory window, she has a terrific view of the city, including the canal and the historical architecture that abounds on either side of it. In her opinion, it’s about time.

“I’m a fifth-year student, and I didn’t get downtown until now,’’ she says.

Prior to this year, the University of Massachusetts at Lowell didn’t have a campus property in the heart of the city. That changed this fall with the opening of the new UMass Lowell Inn and Conference Center (ICC). Hailed as a collaborative effort between the university and the city, the center is expected to benefit both students and the downtown area by bringing the two closer together.

UMass-Lowell Chancellor Marty Meehan believes the possibilities from such an arrangement are endless.

“The ICC project shows the enormous potential in the way that universities can interact with cities,’’ he said in remarks at the official opening. “This is an opportunity for students to engage in their community.’’

Formerly the downtown Doubletree Hotel, the center was conceptualized when the university faced a housing crisis last year that left some 400 students on a waiting list. After discussions on leasing the hotel space, UMass-Lowell was presented with an opportunity to purchase the hotel outright at a cost of $15 million. Today, after approximately $5 million in renovations, the complex features housing for 400 students, as well as accommodations for university events and conferences throughout the year.

The main thrust behind the concept, however, is the partnership between the university and the city of Lowell. As the first UMass-Lowell property downtown, the ICC poses new opportunities for interaction between students and their community.

Audrianilda Vasquez, an ICC assistant resident director and master’s degree candidate in the elementary education program, believes the new setup will encourage the kinds of opportunities she valued growing up in Lawrence.

“There were so many ways to volunteer or get involved with great organizations,’’ she says. “The students here need to be right downtown; Lowell is a great resource, which allows them to learn and to give back.’’

To foster that interaction, a new shuttle service is available to all UMass-Lowell students, allowing them to travel between campuses and downtown day or night.

In addition, a Lowell Connection resource center is housed in what was formerly the hotel’s gift shop. Open seven days a week, the center provides information on area restaurants, attractions, and events, and is staffed by students who have undergone training through the Lowell National Historical Park.

As assistant complex director, Boyd was required to go through that training this past summer. A master’s degree candidate studying civil and environmental engineering, Boyd says the experience opened her eyes.

“I learned more about Lowell in one day than I had in four years of going to school here,’’ she says. “There is now no excuse for the students to not get downtown.’’

Another new initiative stemming from the ICC is the Your Space Groups program, through which students were able to petition to cluster their rooms together into theme-based communities. Groups formed around concepts such as “Live, Love, Lowell,’’ whose members will immerse themselves in learning about the city as a whole, or “Greenspace,’’ whose members will research alternative green space opportunities on campus and in downtown Lowell. Through the Office of Resident Life, each group will have a budget to fund projects related to their theme.

Raquel Franco, a junior psychology major from Clinton, and Shallane Agramonte, a senior psychology major from Andover, are both part of a Your Space Group called Unique-Versity, which will focus on experiencing the multicultural life of the downtown area.

“One of our group members wrote an application paper on diversity, and it was accepted,’’ says Franco. “Our floor will be focused on learning about cultural variety.’’

Both girls agree that in addition to unusual study options, the ICC also offers several housing perks.

“The private bathrooms!’’ says Agramonte, when asked the biggest advantage of the new building. “And the air conditioning. And the bigger beds.’’

With most of the hotel amenities still in place, students living at the ICC have the benefits of individual temperature controls, in-room televisions, wi-fi, and internet ports. One former hotel conference room is now a tutoring services center, outfitted with computers, where student tutors can aid their peers. Open spaces have been left to offer areas for studying and socializing, and some upper-floor suites have been converted into recreation areas, complete with pool tables, ping-pong, and board games.

The hotel’s former restaurant is now a full service dining hall, able to accommodate up to 170 people at a time for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or late night snacking. Future plans may even include room service.

While UMass-Lowell students living at the ICC are enthusiastically embracing their new home, their counterparts at Middlesex Community College are paying attention as well. At the ICC opening ceremony, Molly Sheehy, dean of MCC’s Lowell campus, said that in 2008, 600 Middlesex students transferred to UMass-Lowell. The two schools have often worked in tandem, since associate degree program credits from Middlesex often transfer to bachelor’s degree programs at UMass-Lowell. Sheehy said she believes the new ICC will help both schools attract and retain students who want to follow that path.

For Tina Boyd, the new center represents an idea whose time has finally come. Proud to live in a city teeming with culture and history, she knows that her university now has a real connection to it.

“This will give the city the attention it deserves.’’