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UMass Lowell Celebrates First-Generation Students

University Marks National Day for First in Family to Attend College

Members of the River Hawk Scholars Academy wearing t-shirts for their induction ceremony. Photo by Matthew Hurwitz
UMass Lowell's River Hawk Scholars Academy includes more than 250 first-generation college students.


Contacts for media: Christine Gillette, 978-934-2209 or and Nancy Cicco, 978-934-4944 or

LOWELL, Mass. – UMass Lowell recently joined the celebration on National First-Generation College Student Day.

The university held events that brought together current first-generation college students and faculty and staff who were the first in their families to earn a degree to share their common experiences. The celebration was organized by UMass Lowell’s River Hawk Scholars Academy, which provides first-year students who are also the first in their families to attend college with a range of support, including living-learning opportunities in university housing, academic advising tailored for their needs and workshops and other events. 

The program’s goal is to ensure success in all aspects of student life, inside and outside the classroom. Launched just last year with 95 participants, more than 280 first-year students are participating in the River Hawk Scholars Academy this year. 

“UMass Lowell has a long and proud tradition of serving first-generation college students who go on to leverage their education to make a difference in other fields. Our own chancellor, Jacquie Moloney, is a great example,” said Julie Nash, UMass Lowell’s vice provost for student success. 

The program is one of the ways UMass Lowell demonstrates its commitment to an inclusive culture where all students can thrive and be supported, said Nash.

“Our first-gen students tend to be smart, resilient and independent, but they may not be as comfortable navigating the unique world of higher education because it is not one they were raised in,” she said, noting that the enrichment events such as the celebration of National First-Generation College Student Day help students build a community and sense of belonging that is essential to their success at UMass Lowell. 

Sheila Riley-Callahan, executive director of academic services and special programs, originally came to UMass Lowell as a freshman from Lowell and went on to earn two degrees at the university. Shortly after Riley-Callahan started her bachelor’s at UMass Lowell, she met Charlotte Mandell, former vice provost for undergraduate education, who was then a new psychology professor. 

“She was the person I needed to meet at that time in my life. She was only 10 or 12 years older than me and I could see myself in her and see what I could become. She was very supportive and a very engaging faculty member,” said Riley-Callahan, who now oversees the university’s Centers for Learning and Academic Support Services. 

Kelly Warui, a civil engineering major from Lowell, participated in the River Hawk Scholars Academy as a freshman last year and is now a peer leader. He credits the support of the program – especially Matthew Hurwitz, the faculty member who serves as the academy’s director, and academic adviser Racheal Shertzer – for helping him make the successful transition from high school to college.

“There were study sessions and social events; there was a whole system of support,” he said.

UMass Lowell is a national research university located on a high-energy campus in the heart of a global community. The university offers its more than 18,000 students bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in business, education, engineering, fine arts, health, humanities, sciences and social sciences. UMass Lowell delivers high-quality educational programs, vigorous hands-on learning and personal attention from leading faculty and staff, all of which prepare graduates to be leaders in their communities and around the globe.