By Barry Scanlon
LOWELL — To this day, eight days before she takes over as UMass Lowell’s chancellor, the second woman to hold that title, Julie Chen often thinks back to 1982-86.
Those were her formative days as a Massachusetts Institute of Technology student. She studied mechanical engineering. She also found the time to be a field hockey and softball player, learning about leadership, teamwork and team building.
When President Richard Nixon signed Title IX into law on June 23, 1972, the lives of Chen and millions of other females changed.
Doors were opened. Dreams were expanded.
“I think it’s incredible,” Chen said of Thursday’s 50th anniversary of the signing of Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination in an any educational program or activity receiving any type of federal financial aid. “I know personally it had such an impact on my life.”
Title IX was enacted to stop male-dominated academic disciplines from excluding — or discriminating against — women.
Five decades later, Title IX continues to impact university admissions, financial aid and research. Most notably, however, Title IX has been used in staunch support of female athletes across the nation, including ones at UMass Lowell.
Arriving in Cambridge from her home in Webster, N.Y., in 1982, Chen knew she was going to play field hockey. She also ended up playing softball in the spring after being recruited by some players on that team.
“If you talk to any athlete, especially a college athlete, they’re going to tell you that playing athletics helps them be more disciplined academically,” Chen said. “You bunker down and get it done.”
Without Title IX, Chen said it’s quite possible she never would have played two sports at MIT. That would have been quite a loss for her.
“People say, ‘Wasn’t MIT difficult because there weren’t women in mechanical engineering?’” Chen said.
It’s true she was one of few women in that major at the time, but playing field hockey and softball allowed her to not “feel isolated,” she said.
“It gives a lot of students chances to have leadership roles,” said Chen, who became a captain and an academic All-American. “You can start to build the skills that are going to be important in your career. I wasn’t going to be a professional field hockey player.”
Athletics taught her that a successful team needs people to contribute in a variety of roles.
“You realize that on any team that you’re going to need others. The teammates are the ones that will pick up when you’re having a bad day. I think it’s just so important,” Chen said of students having the chance to play a sport or join a club. “You realize you can do more as a team. You need everyone to realize how they contribute as a team. They do help you figure out who you are and who you want to be.”
After she graduated in 1986, she remained in Cambridge to continue down an academic path, which led her to earning two more degrees. During this time she served as an assistant coach on MIT’s field hockey team.
She grew to love coaching and realized she wanted to teach. Without that experience, it’s likely she would have taken another path, one away from teaching and university life. Instead, her path took her toward receiving her doctorate and landing research roles as a professor. She began to demonstrate leadership skills from playing two sports in college.
Chen joined the UMass Lowell faculty in 1997. The vice chancellor for research, innovation and economic development, she will officially succeed Chancellor Jacquie Moloney, who recently retired, on July 1.
UMass Lowell teams play at the Div. 1 level in 14 sports.
The men’s sports are baseball, basketball, cross country, ice hockey, lacrosse, soccer, and track and field. The women’s sports are basketball, cross country, field hockey, lacrosse, soccer, softball, and track and field.
Women’s athletes have soared at UML, especially since all sports were elevated to the Div. 1 level in 2013.
Lowell native Kaley Richards became UML’s first Div. 1 cross country All-American and first track and field All-American in 2021. Field hockey star Kate Miller was selected to compete at the USA Senior Nexus Championship.
Noelle Lambert was named the inaugural recipient of the America East Inspiration Award. Despite losing a leg in a moped accident, Lambert returned to play lacrosse. She later founded the Born to Run Foundation, competed in the Paralympics and set the U.S. 100-meter record at the 2021 Tokyo Paralympics.
The women’s soccer team won the America East regular season title in 2021 thanks in part to Dunja Mostarac, the America East Defender of the Year in 2020 and 2021. Also, Kaysee Talcik threw the first perfect game in UML softball history in 2019, helping the River Hawks to the regular season title.
Meanwhile, Kharis Idom surpassed 1,000 career points in basketball this past season.
“I am so proud of all the student athletes we have at the university because they really are student athletes,” Chen said. “Athletics bring a lot of people all over the world to a university.”
Chen recently watched a UMass Lowell game and came away impressed. The skill of the athletes was far beyond what she experienced at MIT. So were the level of coaching and the equipment.
All of these are positive signs of progress.
There’s still work to be done, Chen said, but Title IX, to use a softball term, has been a home run in terms of leveling the playing field and providing millions of females with opportunities they wouldn’t have had Nixon not signed it into law 50 years ago Thursday.
“Throughout my career, I’ve been very grateful not only for what I learned in the classroom but what I took from the field,” Chen said.