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UMass Lowell Builds Inclusive Community Through Intentionality

Smiling student

02/14/2017
Insight Into Diversity
By Alexandra Vollman

As chancellor of the University of Massachusetts (UMass) Lowell, Jacqueline Moloney, EdD, understands that when it comes to diversity and inclusion, the best results come from being proactive.

With this in mind, and with the help of more than 250 faculty, staff, and students, the university created a 10-year strategic plan, called UMass Lowell 2020, with “building an inclusive culture” as one of five key pillars. Outlined in the plan are goals for increasing the number of underrepresented students, faculty, and staff — work that the university has supported through the allocation of funds and the creation of infrastructure.

“We saw this as a critically important part of turning the university around, to build this inclusive culture and to demonstrate that in really meaningful ways,” Moloney says.

Veterans' Affairs

To show how important the veteran community is to the university, in 2011, UMass Lowell created the Office of Veterans’ Services. Led by Director of Veterans’ Services Janine Wert, it serves as a hub for all veterans, guardsmen, reservists, and active military students and provides support from application through graduation.

With a focus on helping student veterans achieve personal, academic, and professional success, the office has a range of services and programs — from assistance accessing military education and disability benefits to career workshops.

“We offer tutoring and other academic support, as well as a study and organizational skills meeting every week that helps veterans [who have] traumatic brain injuries and organizational problems,” Wert says. “We also offer social support, such as our SALUTE National Honor Society for Veterans, an annual flag ceremony, and a military ball during our Veterans Week.”

For career programming, UMass Lowell partners with outside organizations. Boots to Business, an entrepreneurial education and training program offered by the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), provides transitioning service members help with launching their own businesses. UMass Lowell student veterans gain access to a three-part entrepreneurship program, guidance around business plan development, and SBA resources and startup capital, as well as other technical assistance.

Another career-focused program is Edge4Vets, developed by the Human Resiliency Institute at Fordham University. Offered through UMass Lowell’s veterans’ office, it aims to teach students how to translate their military experience into skills for professional success. Through its Vocational Workshop Program, which features educational training and networking opportunities, Edge4Vets — in partnership with six Massachusetts life sciences businesses, including Covidien and Pfizer — works to prepare students for careers in the life sciences industry.

According to Moloney, because of these efforts, UMass Lowell has successfully doubled its student veteran population. Now with more than 1,000, the university has the highest enrollment of veterans among all colleges in the state.

“If you talk to our student veterans about the programs we’ve developed, you’ll find that they not only feel supported on this campus, but also celebrated,” Moloney says.

International Exchange

Another large community at UMass Lowell, international students find a support system even before setting foot on campus. The university’s Pair-Up Program matches international students with domestic students to provide them with a connection to the local community in hopes of bridging the “cultural gap between [them] through mutual interests and understanding,” according to the program’s website.

Participants are paired based on common interests, hobbies, and majors; often, one American student is matched with two or three international students. Domestic students are encouraged to establish a connection with their international counterparts while they are still in their home countries preparing to come to the U.S. Following a kickoff event at the start of the fall semester, both students are required to attend monthly check-in meetings and one on-campus event with their buddies, as well as meet once a month for a social outing.

“We really want our international students to feel more at home,” says Leslie Wong, director of multicultural affairs at UMass Lowell. “I think a lot of them do, but we want to make sure that we reach them earlier and quicker and … that we are as responsive as we can be to their diverse needs.”

Pair-Up also hosts a Cultural Conversations dialogue series, which gives students the opportunity to engage in a variety of topical conversations around culture shock, nuances of communication, and understanding microaggressions. Wong says the program’s main objectives are to minimize participants’ biases and to develop new friendships, increase their cultural understanding and competence, and build their résumés by demonstrating their ability to work with people from different cultures.

“It’s something that I believe gives you an advantage, to be familiar with more cultures,” she says. “To be able to have discussions about what’s going on in different countries … and negotiate cultural differences is really critical.”

Beginning with 150 combined domestic and international students in 2015, the program has since grown to about 250 participants.

Living-Learning Communities

With a focus on supporting all student groups, UMass Lowell launched its first living-learning community (LLC) in 2008. Originally designed to improve the retention of first-year students, these communities provide opportunities for students to live and study together based on major or interest. The university has since expanded the program to include upperclassmen as well.

Phillip Begeal, associate director of residence life, oversees all of UMass Lowell’s 23 LLCs, which emphasize multiculturalism and personal development. While students are not required to be part of an LLC, their participation is highly encouraged.

“These experiences help them immerse in a specific topic, connect with fellow students with similar passions, and develop meaningful relationships with faculty,” Begeal says.

Each LLC has a set of six learning objectives to guide the student experience, as well as a resident and faculty adviser who lead these efforts. Advisers develop activities such as guest speaker panels, networking dinners, and off-campus trips to local businesses. Begeal says some LLCs also offer tutoring and review sessions to help students succeed in challenging courses.

Wong and her staff in the Office of Multicultural Affairs offer coaching to freshmen LLC residents to help them overcome anxiety associated with the transition to college. They provide guidance for getting involved on campus, registering for classes, studying for exams, and more, Wong says. But beyond learning to adjust both socially and academically to college life, these students benefit from exposure to and closeness with other students.

“It provides an opportunity for students to come together as a community … to have more of a one-on-one connection,” she says. “Sometimes our classes are large, and students may not [be able] to develop some of those relationships, so this is another pathway to ensure they [have that opportunity].”

These communities have also proven to have a positive effect on retention: “The overall retention rate for all first-year students [at UMass Lowell] is 86 percent, and for LLC residents, it is 90 percent,” says Begeal.

Currently, 42 percent of all first-year students are living in LLCs, and the university continues to create more under a variety of themes, including a social justice-themed LLC that launched last year and a STEM LLC that will begin next year.

Due to the success of these efforts and others, UMass Lowell was recently forced to revisit its strategic plan, having already exceeded some of its goals. With underrepresented student enrollment now at 32 percent, the university is setting its sights on increasing the number of underrepresented faculty and staff. As of fall 2015, 26.4 and 14.9 percent of faculty and staff, respectively, were from underrepresented groups, leaving the university within several percentage points of its 2020 goals of
30 and 16 percent.

“This doesn’t happen by accident or by hoping that it will happen,” Moloney says. “We have been very strategic in funding and creating infrastructure to support [individuals] from diverse backgrounds. We’ve also been very strong in advocating for this, building it into the culture and making it part of everybody’s work on campus.”