By Katharine Webster
Jennifer Vivier started going to Girls Inc. of Greater Lowell when she was 6 years old. Over the next few years, as she struggled with bullying in school and an undiagnosed learning disability, she found encouragement, friendship and opportunities for community service at the nonprofit, which offers homework help, mentoring and structured activities.
Now 29, Vivier is a graphic design major with a minor in digital media and production, an avid volunteer on campus and a program leader at Girls Inc., where she mentors “tweens” aged 10 to 12, organizes community service projects and teaches photography, videography and social media skills.
Her efforts were recognized with a Distinguished Service Award at the university’s annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. dinner. The announcement of the award – a surprise to her – drew cheers and applause from three teenage girls she mentors who accompanied her to the dinner. She’s known two of them since they were 6 years old.
“I hope I can be the best version of myself each and every day for these young women,” Vivier said. “They’re our future generation and I want to show them that anything is possible as long as they believe in themselves.”
The other award winners, in the faculty, staff and group categories, were: History Prof. Robert Forrant, for organizing a photo exhibit and other events commemorating the 50th anniversaries of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act; university police Officer Joe Brown, for his service as the campus resource officer and help recruiting diverse officers to the department; and the Ally Space LGBTQ Education Program for its outreach efforts, workshops, events and classroom presentations.
Chancellor Jacqueline Moloney and Associate Vice Chancellor Larry Siegel also presented awards to the winners of a fourth-grade art contest at Murkland Elementary School and an essay contest at Stoklosa Middle School, both in Lowell. Both competitions were co-sponsored by the university’s Office of Multicultural Affairs.
Jennifer Demers, program director at Girls Inc., said she nominated Vivier for the award because Vivier faced many of the same challenges as the girls she mentors – and now sets a great example of how to overcome them.
Vivier, who grew up in a low-income, single-parent home, fell so far behind in school that she had to repeat the eighth grade. In her freshman year at Greater Lowell Technical High School, she was advised to drop out and earn her G.E.D., but she refused to give up. After finding caring teachers in the graphic arts program and being diagnosed with a learning disability junior year, she graduated high school and worked her way through Middlesex Community College.
When she decided to pursue a bachelor’s degree – the first person in her family to do so – she asked Girls Inc. for a job.
“They welcomed me back with open arms,” she said. “I’m like the kid who never left.”
Vivier loves bringing “her” girls to campus for art exhibits, basketball games and other events, so they can visualize themselves in a college setting, Demers said. She teaches a class on “Girls in the Media” and ran a program last summer, funded by the Lowell Cultural Council, in which teenage girls interviewed and photographed women leaders in the community, wrote biographies of them and displayed their finished work at a gallery.
Her latest Girls Inc. project just won another Lowell Cultural Council grant: teaching cultural and media literacy by taking the girls on field trips to photograph and videotape sites connected to Jack Kerouac.
“She’s such a positive person and so engaged, and she’s always thinking of ways to connect our girls to the community,” Demers said. “She’s always taking what she’s learning at UMass Lowell and teaching it to the girls.”
After the MLK dinner, guests were invited to the opening of a civil rights exhibit on the second floor of University Crossing that included videos, interactive displays, posters from the civil rights movements and performances. Many of the exhibits will remain up through February.
MLK Week also included the first in a monthly series of events about race, beginning with student-led discussion circles on racial issues on campus. Future events will look at hate speech and free speech, as well as race and the media, says Leslie Wong, director of Multicultural Affairs. The series grew out of conversations with students about the Black Lives Matter movement and massive demonstrations at the University of Missouri last fall about poor handling of racist incidents.