LOWELL — From its origins as the Lowell Normal School and Lowell Textile School to a thriving, growing multidisciplinary university, UMass Lowell’s 125 years have been marked by innovation and a commitment to providing students with avenues to success.
“There is a deep tradition here of being people who pursue the American dream, and I feel that is a big part of what UMass Lowell is all about,” said Chancellor Jacquie Moloney.
She feels the strongest accomplishments of UML in recent years have been in student success. UML has a 66 percent six-year graduation rate, and growing four-year graduation and placement rates — 96 percent of all graduates go on to full-time employment or graduate programs.
Moloney said the university plays an important role in the community, bringing prominence to the city, serving as its second-largest employer and providing economic development opportunities.
UML is ranked by PayScale.com as the number one public university in New England for return on investment for students, and 29th in the nation, Moloney said. The university also returns an estimated $1 billion per year in economic impact to the state, she said.
For the third year in a row, UML has topped 18,000 enrolled students – an increase of more than 57 percent since 2007 – and for the fourth year was listed in The Chronicle of Higher Education as one of the top 10 fastest-growing colleges in the country. Last week UML welcomed nearly 3,400 first-year and new transfer students at its Convocation to kick off the school year.
Last year was one of the most successful fundraising years in the university’s history, with highlights including a $5 million donation by alumnus Brian Rist and a partnership with Oprah Winfrey that raised more than $3 million for scholarships.
This year Moloney said she expects UML will “far surpass” its goal of raising $125 million in its five-year campaign. She said she’s also confident the university will hit another milestone, when its endowment, currently at about $95 million, will exceed $100 million.
As part of its 125th anniversary events, this spring UML will cut the ribbon on its renovated Coburn Hall, the oldest building on campus that has been brought into the 21st century.
Coburn Hall originally housed the Lowell Normal School, a training school for teachers created in 1894, that later became Lowell State College.
The Lowell Textile School, opened in 1895 to help students advance their careers in textile manufacturing, would later expand to offer bachelor degrees in textile dyeing and engineering and become the Lowell Textile Institute. In the 1950s it further expanded to offer programs in plastics, leather, paper and electronics technology, and was renamed the Lowell Technological Institute.
Lowell Tech and Lowell State College merged in 1975 to form the University of Lowell.
UMass President Marty Meehan, who preceded Moloney as chancellor, was a student at the college during that merger, which he feels helped propel the university’s rise in stature. He points to former state Sen. Paul Sheehy and William Hogan, who served as president of the University of Lowell and then as UMass Lowell’s first chancellor, as key figures in its success.
In addition to overseeing the university’s entrance to the UMass system in 1991, Hogan is credited with significantly strengthening academics and research programs and making the university competitive on the national level.
“One of the reasons I went back to UMass Lowell to be chancellor was I felt it had given me every opportunity to achieve whatever I set out to achieve in my own life, as a lawyer and a prosecutor, and then in Congress,” Meehan said.
Meehan said Hogan, who was conservative about borrowing money, had laid the perfect foundation for when he came on board in 2007. UML was able to take advantage of its resources and interest rates at 30-year lows in order to make dramatic improvements to the campus and strategic acquisitions to the benefit of UML, Lowell and the region.
Among those was the purchase of the downtown’s DoubleTree hotel, which became the UMass Lowell Inn & Conference Center, giving UML a more meaningful presence downtown and increasing the stature of the university to host international conferences, Meehan said.
The acquisition of the Tsongas Center allowed UML to attain Division 1 in athletics and develop a nationally ranked hockey program, he said. Meehan said UML has put more than $10 million into upgrades and renovations at the arena, turning it into a first-class, destination venue that now earns revenue for the university instead of losing the city more than $1 million per year.
Meehan said he believes the construction of University Crossing was the linchpin in fully connecting UML’s campuses – the final merging of the predecessor institutions. Built on the site of the old St. Joseph’s Hospital in 2011, University Crossing brought all student services and organizations together under one roof.
UML is nationally recognized for its research in a number of areas, from smart fibers at the Fabric Discovery Center to medical and biotechnology at the Massachusetts Medical Device Development Center and Biotech Incubator.
“That research is creating technologies that create new companies that create new jobs,” Meehan said.
UML is also recognized at the federal level as a designated National Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense Research by the Department of Homeland Security and National Security Agency.
A growing area of focus for the university, in both research and considering its own environmental impact, is energy and sustainability, Moloney said.
UML is working on solar and offshore wind energy, and just partnered with Somerville-based Greentown Labs, the largest cleantech startup incubator in the U.S., to pursue academic and research projects, entrepreneurial ventures and economic development activities. There is also an initiative to build climate awareness across the curriculum so all disciplines are thinking about the impact of climate change and their potential roles to try to slow it, Moloney said.
She said UML has been able to reduce its carbon footprint by 50 percent while almost doubling the the size of the campus. All new buildings are designed with the latest in green technology and are LEED certified, Moloney said. The university has also implemented a water saving program that has cut its water usage by close to 2 million gallons per year, she said.
UML is also looking to embed across the curriculum a commitment to ethics and ethical thinking, Moloney said. This year, four fellows at UML’s Donahue Center for Business Ethics and Social Responsibility are tasked with determining how to take that idea across the university.
One such interdisciplinary opportunity is in a program that seeks to bring ethical decision-making to the design of self-driving cars. Moloney said she feels this is an area where UML can uniquely take advantage of its great strengths in various disciplines to “help build out the new technology of the future.”
Moloney said UML is working hard to reduce student debt through providing more financial aid and scholarships, and aggressively seeking a variety of ways to raise funds for these efforts. The university is providing financial literacy education for students and parents to help them plan for paying for college and teaching students how to manage their time and resources so that they graduate sooner, she said.
Under the Preferred Partners Program instituted in April, UML is working with companies and industries not only on research, internship and co-op opportunities, but also to help finance student education, through scholarship opportunities and in some instances, helping students pay down their debt when they graduate, Moloney said.
“I’m so very proud of the university and what we’ve accomplished, and having it be a part of my own history, just seeing how UMass Lowell continues to evolve,” Moloney said.
Throughout its history, UML’s students have been hardworking and dedicated to their education and helping their families get ahead, she said.
Like many students now and in the past, Moloney was the first from her family to attend college. She holds two degrees from UML, a bachelor degree in sociology and doctorate in education, and has worked in various roles at the school for more than 30 years. In 2015, she became the first woman to lead UML.
“I feel I found my voice and my passion here, and have been able to take what I learned here through my career and my own personal life,” Moloney said.
That feeling is shared by current students and alumni alike.
Students David Morton, Andrea Miles and Monica Kong said UML has provided them with a plethora of opportunities they feel are enriching their educational experience and preparing them for their next steps in life.
A senior double major in business and political science, Morton, 22, of Boxford, said UML allowed him to test out several different concentrations within the business program, which helped set his direction in marketing and management.
Now president of the Student Government Association, Morton said it is a valuable learning experience in how to lead an organization.
“I think UMass Lowell is pretty much what made me who I am today,” Morton said. “It’s been a great opportunity for me and I can’t imagine myself anywhere else.”
Miles, 23, a senior originally from Venezuela, attended Middlesex Community College for two years before transferring to UML to complete her bachelor degree in international business and marketing.
She said she loves the diversity of the city and the university, where she has worked in the Office of International Students and Scholars and the Office of Multicultural Affairs, serving as a student ambassador assisting other international students in their transition to college life in the U.S.
Through UML’s Career Services and Cooperative Education Center, Miles secured a summer social media and marketing internship at Energetiq Technology Inc. in Wilmington, and she was invited to stay on part-time during the school year.
“UMass Lowell has prepared me so well, because everything I’ve seen in the classroom is exactly what I’m doing in my day-to-day at work, so I’m very grateful for the tools they’ve given me and everything,” Miles said.
Kong, 19, a sophomore who grew up in Lowell and Dracut, said she chose UML so she could easily commute to school and save money, and because of the welcoming, inclusive community.
The first member of her family to go to college, Kong was grateful for the assistance of the River Hawk Scholars Academy in helping her adjust to college life and the resources available to her. Now, she helps other first-generation college students in the organization as a peer mentor.
“I feel really fulfilled at the end of the day that I can help others who are like me, that I can uplift others and I can become more involved in my community, in the city and on campus,” Kong said.
She came into UML as a biology major, but switched to public health because she found it to be a good opportunity to incorporate her interests in the social aspects of health and health care along with science.
Kong said she plans to take certified nursing assistant courses over winter break so she can gain experience working in a hospital. She also serves as secretary of the Filipino Club and as a member of the Mental Health Advisory Committee, where she helps generate ideas for how students can better handle stress and have a well-balanced life.
Mark St. Hilaire, originally of Chelmsford, graduated from the then-University of Lowell in 1985 with a bachelor’s degree in administration of criminal justice. He said it prepared him well for his early work as a campus police officer and then his 30-year career as a municipal police officer, which took him to Maynard and Natick, where he retired in February as a sergeant.
St. Hilaire said some of his favorite instructors were former Tewksbury Police Chief John Mackey and former University Police Chief Jim Rowe, whose real-life experience brought the courses to life.
He also took a “Sociology of the Family” class that taught him what it was like for families on welfare to have their benefits shut off when they came into some money.
“Instead of a step up out of poverty, the government and the welfare administration penalizes these folks into a catch 22 where they remain part of the welfare cycle,” St. Hilaire said. “They changed my view of social status and stigma that the poor faced.”
John Nelson, of Worcester, enrolled in then-Lowell Tech in 1974. He first started in the mechanical engineering program, and later switched to industrial technology.
“I chose Lowell Tech based on its reputation, affordable tuition, and also the fact that it was less than 50 miles from where I lived,” said Nelson, who grew up in Holden. “I decided to live on campus though, rather than make the commute every day. It was a great decision as I made some lifelong friends there, and also gave me the education I needed to have a 40-year career in the engineering field with respected companies such as Honeywell and GE.”
More than two decades after he graduated from the University of Lowell, his daughter, Heather, also decided to go to UMass Lowell. She graduated in 2006 with a bachelor degree in philosophy, communications and critical thinking and began working right away, continuing her education with UML online to earn her master’s degree. She now works as a behavioral analyst at BCI in Worcester.
UMass Lowell will mark its 125th throughout the school year, with a goal of having 125 events initiated by different colleges and groups across the university and alumni, Moloney said. The largest event planned so far is the 125th Anniversary Celebration, scheduled for Oct. 17 at the Inn & Conference Center, which will include a tribute to UML’s history, entertainment, dinner, awards and more.
For more details on 125th anniversary celebration events and in-depth histories of each of UML’s colleges, visit uml.edu/125/.