Nancy Cicco, Special to the Sun
About 3,900 students will cross the stage of Tsongas Center today to accept their diplomas from University of Massachusetts Lowell. Many of those students leave the university with a job or career path firmly in hand. Here are snapshots of eight achievers who have stood out during their years at UML:
Cleveland Atkinson began his college career 17 years ago and at Saturday's afternoon commencement ceremony, will graduate with his third degree. He first earned an associate's degree at New Mexico Military Institute in 2001 and then a bachelor's degree in political science at the University of Connecticut in 2003, and played football at both schools. Originally from Georgia, Atkinson lives in Lowell.
After graduation, he worked in the juvenile court system and after a few years, in search of a change, took a job as a Verizon lineman in Massachusetts. Impressed with the state's educational system, he became his younger sister's guardian, allowing her to move from Georgia to gain access to better opportunities.
After seeing his sister through to earning her own college degree, Atkinson reached a crossroads in his life that led him to focus again on education. Laid off from his job, he enrolled at Massasoit Community College. That experience showed him something he hadn't realized before: He excelled in math and science courses and realized he could handle a degree program in a STEM field.
Inspired, he enrolled at UMass Lowell, where he has majored in plastics engineering and taken advantage of opportunities to co-op with General Electric and intern with Nestle Waters. These experiences have led him to secure a full-time job after graduation with Entec Polymers in Orlando, Fla.
Ayah Awadallah, of Haverhill, found more than a job with her English degree -- she's launching a business. In the coming year, Awadallah will launch an online fashion and lifestyle guide for American women of Muslim faith who are ages 17 to 23. The idea for "AM Women" grew out of her own experiences staying true to the tenets of her religion and Muslim culture while finding her place in American society. The venture's genesis and growth can be directly traced to her studies at UMass Lowell.
Awadallah's coursework in journalism and professional writing introduced her to YouthBuild of Greater Lowell and the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Lowell. Through her UMass Lowell writing classes, she created marketing materials for both organizations while earning credit toward her degree. Her love of marrying text and photographs to create brochures fueled her decision to add classes in graphic art and design to her studies at UMass Lowell.
Last year, she completed an internship writing for an arts and entertainment website, including interviewing singer-songwriter Melissa Manchester, civil rights activist Judy Richardson and author Stephen Kurkjian, all of whom visited UMass Lowell in 2015 for events for the campus and community.
Her experience inspired her to create "AM Women." The concept for the publication became her honors thesis and her idea was a finalist in UMass Lowell's College of Fine Arts Humanities and Social Sciences Creative Ventures Competition last fall. The contest is part of the university's DifferenceMaker Program, which teaches students to think like entrepreneurs to solve problems in business and society. With the confidence she gained through the program, she will continue crafting her business plan and seek out potential investors for "AM Women" in the coming year.
A talented singer and actress, Hamel, from Methuen, toured the world for a year with Up with People after graduating from high school. While on a stop in the Philippines, a chance encounter with a child living in poverty opened her eyes to the realization that the lack of proper health care would create barriers to that child living a healthy and fulfilling life. That experience led Hamel to an entirely different career path than her original plan of becoming a professional actress. With the hope of one day working to eradicate those barriers, Hamel returned home, determined to improve the quality of life for people in the Merrimack Valley.
She soon put her time with Up With People to good use toward her goal: The summer before she enrolled in UMass Lowell's School of Nursing, she raised $25,000 to bring the cast of Up With People to Lowell to perform 1,200 hours of community service and present a show that raised $10,000 for Habitat for Humanity of Greater Lowell.
While pursuing her nursing degree, Hamel has served as a resident adviser, a "Healthy Hawk" peer educator, a member of Nursing Students Without Borders and, owing to her love of performing, as a member of UMass Lowell's Glee Club.
Her off-campus endeavors have complemented these pursuits. Through a family connection, she joined the Westford Rotary Club, where she's believed to be one of the group's youngest-ever members. As a Rotarian, she has raised money to build a water-treatment facility in Honduras, among other projects.
In 2014, Hamel, a Methuen native, sought to put the skills she was learning in the classroom to the test. Looking for work as a nursing assistant, she landed a position at the first hospital to which she applied: Lahey Hospital and Medical Center. This weekend, UMass Lowell will honor her with a Chancellor's Medal for Community Service. After Commencement, she will continue to work as a nursing assistant at Lahey as she prepares to take her state nursing board exam.
The globe is Nitta Heng's classroom and her decision to study international business and finance at UMass Lowell fits hand-in-glove with her background. Heng arrived in Lowell with her family as a 13-year-old and picked up English as her third language -- her first is Central Khmer and her second is Chinese, which she learned while going to school in her native Cambodia.
Once here, she and her brothers reunited with her mother, who had arrived in the U.S before her, first living in a Cambodian community in Long Beach, Calif., then heading east to Lowell to pursue job opportunities. After graduating from Lowell High School, Heng headed off to college in Boston but soon transferred to UMass Lowell so she could take advantage of a broader selection of programs of study.
Capitalizing on all the university has to offer, she spent six weeks last summer interning at a financial firm in Shanghai, where she conducted market research on the American and Chinese jewelry industries and consulted with Chinese sales representatives and managers on customer service initiatives.
On Monday, Heng will start work at Autoliv in Lowell as a financial analyst, a new position that will bring her to the auto safety-system company's plants around the world so she can evaluate each location's practices in order to streamline them.
Winning praise from a CEO enabled Erneston Maurissaint to find his footing on the corporate ladder. After graduating from Billerica Memorial High School in 2012, Maurissaint took a job as a food-service worker at Lahey Hospital and Medical Center in Burlington, where his positive attitude and way with patients caught the attention of Lahey President and CEO Dr. Howard Grant. In short order, Maurissaint began work as a nurse's aide on the hospital's cardiac floor.
It was another step in fulfilling his dream of becoming a nurse, an ambition he has held since he was a child, when he witnessed the compassionate care his mother received as she coped with kidney disease. Diagnosed at a young age with a learning disability, Maurissaint struggled throughout middle and high school with his coursework, believing he did not measure up. Still, he was determined to persevere and his academic performance in high school allowed him to go on to UMass Lowell.
His studies at UMass Lowell provided him with the tools to realize his dream. Impressed with the professionalism and openness of the university's faculty while on a campus tour, Maurissaint decided to enroll in the School of Nursing. By taking advantage of the resources in the Bring Diversity to Nursing Program, a UMass Lowell initiative that provides assistance -- including scholarships, tutoring and mentoring -- to students from diverse backgrounds who hope to enter the profession, he improved his study skills and overall academic performance. He became a leader in both BDN and Men in Nursing, a student-run organization for men pursuing the field.
Maurissaint completed his coursework in December. Shortly afterward, he passed the state's nursing board exam -- on the first try -- and now works as a nurse at Lowell General Hospital, where he is a participant in the Collaborative New Post-Graduate Residency Program offered by UMass Lowell in partnership with the hospital and Genesis Health Care.
Felipe Nascimento not only has a job after graduation, he is creating jobs for others through his business, Veloxity. Located in a renovated mill in North Chelmsford, Veloxity sells, leases and rents portable cellphone charging stations to clients around the world. He launched the company in 2013 with three friends after they had a "light bulb moment" and realized there was no easy way for them to re-charge their cell phones when they were on the go. The company has already provided the units to clients around the world, including to the organizers of this year's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas. Veloxity is now pursuing venture capital and institutional investors.
Nascimento, who will receive his degree in business administration on Saturday, is Veloxity's chief technology officer. Originally from Brazil, he moved to Chelmsford with his family as a fifth-grader and soon developed an interest in computers and technology. Earlier this month, the state Department of Education recognized him as one of the "29 Who Shine" among graduating seniors from Massachusetts' 29 public colleges and universities. Not only have these students been leaders on campus, they are poised to make important professional and civic contributions to life in the Commonwealth.
Nascimento says he loves the Mill City and UMass Lowell for their inclusive culture and history. He credits the internship, co-op and extracurricular experiences he gained through the university with honing his professional and business leadership skills that he is already using in running Veloxity and will expand on when he is the company's full-time chief technology officer after graduation.
Cory Reyes couldn't write in English when he arrived in Massachusetts as a 13-year-old from the Dominican Republic. Although he didn't always find the right words to say, he was a doer and a builder from the start.
A mentorship program offered through Lawrence High School gave him direction, pairing him with a mechanical engineer from Raytheon with whom he met every week. After mulling over whether to become an architect, Reyes reflected on his experience with his mentor and decided to pursue mechanical engineering after high school. With that game plan in hand, his choice of college was easy: His sister had just graduated from UMass Lowell with a degree in music business and he was impressed with the energy on campus -- not to mention the university's outstanding engineering programs.
New mentors, including Dean of Engineering Joseph Hartman and Mechanical Engineering Prof. James Sherwood, soon came into his life, along with new opportunities to stretch himself. He joined UMass Lowell's chapter of the Society of Hispanic Engineers and, becoming a mentor to others as they had once been to him, has served as the group's president for three years. Reyes also spent a summer helping to develop curriculum for UMass Lowell's Artbotics Program, which introduces students to art, computer science and robotics by creating interactive, kinetic sculptures. That work was completed at the university's UMass Lowell's New England Robotics Validation and Experimentation (NERVE) Center, one of the nation's foremost robotics-testing facilities and home to NASA's "Valkyrie" humanoid robot for the next two years.
Last summer, Reyes completed an internship at Brooks Automation in Chelmsford, thanks to a lead from the university's Career Services and Co-operative Education Center. The connection paid off: Impressed with his work, his manager remembered Reyes and encouraged him to apply for a full-time job with the company. As a result, Reyes was hired in February as a full-time mechanical engineer who will start as a participant in a training program to learn the various facets of the business. The company makes robotics for the semiconductor industry.
Amanda Robinson found her voice at UMass Lowell and she's been speaking up to help improve the lives of others ever since. Robinson is majoring in finance in UMass Lowell's Manning School of Business, but has also pursued her love of political science.
It was in the political realm she became best known on campus, joining the Student Government Association her freshman year and rising through its ranks to become president in 2015. Along the way, the Hingham native served as the chairwoman of the Campus Life and Environment Committee, spearheading an initiative that saw the university become tobacco-free in 2013. By her junior year, she was captain of the Mock Trial Team and last summer, was sworn in as UMass Lowell's student representative to the UMass Board of Trustees. In that role, she served on the search committee tasked with finding Marty Meehan's successor as chancellor of UMass Lowell. It was a chance for Robinson to advocate for one of her personal and professional role models, Jacquie Moloney, who was named the university's first woman chancellor last August.
In recognition of her contributions to UMass Lowell and the entire UMass system, Robinson will receive a Chancellor's Medal for Student Service as part of Commencement exercises this weekend. Ready to begin a full-time job in investment sales at Fidelity Investments in Rhode Island next month, Robinson also hopes to return to the classroom someday to earn a master's in business administration or a law degree.