As a freshman, Savannah Marshall spent late nights riding the shuttle bus across campus, the Incubus song “Make Yourself” cranked on her iPod.
Over and over, Marshall listened to the refrain rising above thrashing guitars: “If you really want to live, why not try and make yourself?” and began to think of the coming-of-age anthem as part of the soundtrack to her freshman year.
For Marshall and many of her classmates, the song is also a fitting accompaniment to the arc of their odyssey at UMass Lowell.
“I have definitely evolved. I came to UMass Lowell with few expectations and didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do,” says Marshall, who is graduating with a dual major in music education and psychology and plans to teach, continue performing and pursue a master’s degree. “I feel really prepared. I have learned how to problem solve and manage my work, time and daily life.”
As they receive their degrees, members of the class of 2013, the largest in University history, are moving forward with plans to launch careers, seek advanced degrees, start businesses and chase their dreams – prepared in large measure by their University experiences.
With their college years shaped by economic uncertainty, rapidly advancing technology, the explosion of social media and always-on access to information, the students are emerging with an optimism tempered by no-nonsense practicality. They want to make a difference while also making a living. They see enormous societal challenges and they feel equipped to address them. Many have completed internships, conducted research, done service-learning projects and worked at co-op positions.
They are accomplished multi-taskers, juggling classes, jobs, campus activities, sports and personal commitments. Many students say they have drawn inspiration from their peers; the accomplishments of others spurring them to do more.
“Everyone that surrounded me on campus has a good work ethic. We feed off each other. You use it as a tool,” says Ryan MacInnis, who is earning his bachelor’s in English and is planning to get an MBA while pursuing a career in marketing and communications.
For many students, a class with an inspiring professor, a study abroad opportunity, involvement in campus activities or internship experiences had a significant impact and helped put their goals into focus.
“In my sophomore year, I took a climate change class with Assoc. Prof. Juliette Rooney-Varga and it opened my eyes to what needs to be done and what I should be doing,” says Heather Merhi, president of the Student Environmental Alliance who is earning a degree in biology.
Merhi is interested in a career as a sustainability manager, a profession she didn’t know existed four years ago.
Yahaira Campusano, who is graduating with a degree in liberal arts with concentrations in psychology and sociology, says working in the Jumpstart program affirmed her desire to teach. The national program, which was introduced on campus in 2011, matches college students and others with preschools in low-income communities to help teach language, literacy and social skills.
“It was life-changing. I know now that I want to work with urban youth,” says Campusano, who has accepted a position with City Year, a non-profit that works to reduce the drop-out rate in public schools. She plans to start working on her master’s degree in education in the fall and eventually wants to get her Ph.D., with a long-term goal of becoming a school superintendent.
A Parallel Transformation
The graduating seniors were enrolled at UMass Lowell during a time of unprecedented growth. New programs have been introduced, faculty hired and buildings risen up on campus. In February, the University announced its athletic teams are moving up to Division 1, joining the America East Conference. Many students feel like they have played a part in the changes, whether they signed their names to the steel beam that sits atop the $80 million Emerging Technologies and Innovation Center, attended a concert by a national headliner like Drake at the Tsongas Center or cheered on the River Hawks men’s ice hockey team which skated its way to its best season this year.
“UMass Lowell is going through a transformation and it’s great to be a part of it. It’s a motivating factor,” says Rudy Baez, who is earning a degree from the Manning School of Business and is a 2013 winner of a Chancellor’s Medal for Student Service. He hopes to someday become general manager of a sports team or entertainment venue.
“It’s encouraging to see the growth of the school and all the new buildings. Our sports teams are doing awesome. It makes you feel proud,” says Michael Boyer, a community health graduate who will be returning for a master’s degree in epidemiology in the School of Health and Environment. He wants to continue on for a doctoral degree and eventually work at the Centers for Disease Control.
The Class of 2013 has bonded over everything from living independently for the first time to gathering for "The Walking Dead" viewing parties. They are entering the job market as the economy is improving and their UMass Lowell degree is gaining recognition for its value. A recent report by PayScale Inc. reported that a UMass Lowell education provides the 10th best return on investment (ROI) among public universities in the United States.
Wherever they are headed, many feel ready for the future.
“I am optimistic,” says Boyer, who hopes to parlay a recent internship at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary into an epidemiology-related position at a hospital. “I am ready for the next phase. Whatever the world has to offer, I can handle it.”