LOWELL -- A recent survey of UMass Lowell graduates found that less than a year after earning their diplomas, 95 percent of bachelor's degree recipients have either started a full-time job or are continuing their education by pursuing a graduate degree.
The achievements of Class of 2017 graduates put a human face on that statistic. Many of the newly minted alumni are already at work in the local community or have traveled to points across the globe to build their careers and personal lives.
Here are four from Lowell who are making a difference.
James Aung is using his personal experiences and his UMass Lowell education to forge a new future for fellow refugees in the Mill City.
Aung is the volunteer executive director of SayDaNar, a community-development organization he co-founded in Lowell that helps refugees from Myanmar rebuild their lives. He launched the initiative while also working at a community health job and completing his degree at UMass Lowell.
Aung is originally from Myanmar (formerly known as Burma). The civil war there, cited as the longest-running in modern history, forced him to leave his family and flee the country in 2004. After earning his GED in Thailand with the dream of attending college in the U.S., Aung came to Massachusetts in 2008, moving to Lowell for the chance to work as an interpreter for other Burmese immigrants.
That opportunity led to work with the state Department of Public Health, where he helped refugees and political asylum-seekers in the northeast region of Massachusetts understand the American health-care system.
Shortly after coming to Lowell -- all the while saving his money to send back to his family in Myanmar -- Aung enrolled at Middlesex Community College, where he discovered a program through which he could transfer to UMass Lowell to complete his bachelor's degree. Arriving at the university in 2015, he took an introductory economics class that showed him how government policies can help people struggling to raise their standard of living -- or hinder their progress. It was then he decided to major in Economics.
In addition to juggling his job and his studies while a UMass Lowell student, Aung, 42, volunteered as SayDaNar's executive director. There, he continues to assist fellow immigrants in filling out job applications, getting their driver's licenses, building their financial literacy and taking citizenship classes.
SayDaNar is run entirely by volunteers and its programs receive no funding. Aung, with the help of UMass Lowell Political Science Professor Ardeth Thawnghmung, has encouraged UMass Lowell faculty and students to get involved with SayDaNar through service-learning classes and internships. And partly as a result of Aung's advocacy, Lowell Public Schools now employs a liaison and tutor for Burmese students.
For his efforts, Aung was honored by UMass Lowell with a Chancellor's Medal for Community Service as part of this year's commencement events. Recently, SayDaNar elected a new leadership team, allowing Aung to return to Myanmar next month to create a nonprofit agency to help people there.
Yin Liu is one of a very special group. She is among the first students to earn a Ph.D. from the new doctoral program in UMass Lowell's Manning School of Business, and is one of six graduates who also landed tenure-track assistant professorships before receiving their diplomas in May.
Liu aspired to a career in academia while an undergraduate business student in South Carolina. There, she had friends who were professors and through them, she saw the rigors of teaching -- but also the rewards. Intuitively, she knew she'd be a good fit as a faculty member and started seeking doctoral programs in business administration. She enrolled at UMass Lowell after learning about the university's Manning School of Business and its highly ranked graduate programs, and Massachusetts' overall reputation as an educational powerhouse.
Liu's education at UMass Lowell built the foundation for her career, she says. In just the second year of the doctoral program, she was leading classes -- Liu's specialty is Accounting -- and working with a university mentor who sat in on those sessions and helped her design coursework. That experience, Liu says, proved invaluable during interviews with potential employers when they asked her about her time in front of a classroom of students.
Liu also excelled when it came to her scholarship, co-authoring research on investment strategies that won the 2016 Northeast Region Accounting Association of America's Best Ph.D. Paper Award. Liu collaborated on the project with Accounting Professor Huiqi Gan and Accounting Department Chairman Professor Khondkar Karim, whose guidance and support Liu says was invaluable to her.
For Liu, it all added up to a new career. This summer, she and her husband are moving to upstate New York, where she will begin work as an assistant professor at the College at Brockport, part of the State University of New York.
Carlos Ibarra Lopez
Carlos Ibarra Lopez's hands-on education in robotics at UMass Lowell powered his opportunity to work for Google, where he'll begin a yearlong residency as a software engineer this month.
Growing up in Hermosillo, a city in southwestern Mexico, Ibarra Lopez tinkered in electronics as a hobby and decided to pursue it as a career. While studying Computer Science at the Universidad de Sonora in his home country, he came across a list of robotics courses taught at UMass Lowell. Intrigued, he jumped at the chance to participate in an exchange program that would bring him to the Mill City to study. His timing was impeccable.
Settling in at UMass Lowell in 2013, Ibarra Lopez quickly joined a team of students led by Computer Science Professor Holly Yanco that was competing in a national contest to build a Mars Rover-style robot for a competition sponsored by NASA and the National Institute of Aerospace. Known as the "Rover Hawks," the students worked out of the New England Robotics Validation and Experimentation Center at UMass Lowell, where they designed, constructed and ultimately operated a vehicle via remote control that could negotiate varied terrain that mimicked the surface of another planet. Squaring off against teams from other universities across the country, the Rover Hawks won the contest.
The victory reaffirmed Ibarra Lopez's love of robotics and hooked him on UMass Lowell. Though he returned to Mexico to complete his bachelor's degree and get married, he and his bride came back to the university in 2015 so he could pursue his master's degree in Computer Science. While doing so, he worked at the NERVE Center on another high-profile project -- programming "Valkyrie," NASA's 300-pound, life-sized humanoid robot -- to expand its skills for use in future missions to space, perhaps even Mars.
That experience, coupled with his classwork, gave Ibarra Lopez a formidable set of skills and the confidence to apply for an internship at Google in 2015. Although he was not chosen for that opportunity, he got a second chance after a recruiter for the high-tech giant kept his résumé and later encouraged him to apply for the company's engineering residency program. He's in Mountain View, Calif., with an eye toward transitioning into a longer-term position with Google.
A self-described "people person" and community-builder, Jose Molina will flex the mentoring and other skills he gained at UMass Lowell when he heads to Costa Rica this month for a two-year stint as a youth counselor in the Peace Corps.
Molina, who majored in Political Science and Psychology, learned from his past how to reach out to others. Born in Puerto Rico to parents from the Dominican Republic, he spoke only Spanish when he arrived in the United States in 1996. Growing up, he often felt like an outsider, always the "new kid." He is youngest of 10 children and by the time he was 14, his family had moved 14 times.
But when they landed in Lowell during Molina's freshman year of high school, he began to lay down roots in the city. At the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Lowell, Molina rose to become president of the Keystone Club, the organization's teen leadership program. The club offered him a home away from home, complete with advice from staff and the occasional meal. In 2013, the organization named him Youth of the Year and helped him complete his application to UMass Lowell. Molina has never forgotten the kindness. In fact, his goal is to always pay it forward.
While at UMass Lowell, Molina was a diversity peer educator, mentoring others and promoting the university's inclusive community. He was a resident adviser, ensuring other students have the resources they need in their daily lives. The vice president of the UMass Lowell Latin American Student Association, Molina also helped create Advocates of Tomorrow, a campus community of like-minded freshmen who live together and, like Molina, share a passion for social-justice causes.
Molina, the first person in his family to graduate with a four-year degree, was among the students honored with a Chancellor's Medal for Diversity and Inclusion during commencement events. Once in Costa Rica with the Peace Corps, he will help educate people and their parents on how to make healthy lifestyle decisions.