By Katharine Webster
When students taking College Writing II walked into a lecture room at Lowell High School in early March, they found their places in groups of chairs and waited for their partners. At first glance, it looked like a speed-dating event.
But the meet-up was part of a massive, service-learning research project partnering 114 UMass Lowell freshmen in six sections of College Writing II – half from North Campus, half from South – with 60 students at Lowell High to discuss college life and critique each other’s writing.
English Department Lecturer Matt Hurwitz, who designed the study and piloted it this semester, has taught service-learning classes before and gotten an enthusiastic response.
“When students connect their writing and research to work in the community, their horizons expand exponentially,” he says.
In this research, he wants to find out if that translates into measurable improvements in academic outcomes for university students, from more time spent revising their writing, to greater retention rates, to higher GPAs.
Once the Lowell High students arrived and found their partners, Hurwitz asked them to write on index cards one thing they thought was true about college – and asked the university students to write one thing that surprised them about college or life after high school. Then the groups discussed what they’d written.
The Lowell High students’ questions ranged from, “Does college help you get a job?” to “Is college a lot harder than high school?” Responses varied from “It depends on the job,” to “My classes are actually fun.” Every group talked about the importance of managing your time wisely once you’re in college, which is much less structured than high school.
Nicole Hayek, a business major from Salem, N.H., said afterward she was impressed by the Lowell High students’ eagerness to succeed.
“One student asked us, ‘Who do I talk to right now about applying? Who did you talk to?’” she said.
Some of the Lowell High students are in GEAR UP, a state-funded program that prepares students from low-income homes to become the first in their families to attend college. Wayne Currie, who works for GEAR UP at Lowell High, said most of the students are ambitious and self-motivated, but lack family support and financial resources. Many have never set foot outside Lowell, so connecting them with Middlesex Community College and UMass Lowell is important.
“College is a hard sell for a lot of them,” Currie said. “In their household, there is no conversation about college at all. Their conversation is, ‘What’s going to be on the table for dinner?’ A lot of our kids work, but the money doesn’t go to them – it goes to Mom and Dad.”
Other Lowell High students already have plans to attend college, but aren’t yet sure where they want to go or what to study. Kenemassa Jordan, a high school junior, said she found the discussions helpful as she decides whether to pursue criminal justice or business, with an eye to opening her own restaurant.
“I’m leaning toward business,” Jordan said. “I like how you can be your own boss.”
The UMass Lowell students visited Lowell High three times and exchanged their writing online – college application essays for the Lowell High students and reflective essays for the university students. Most of the Lowell High students came to a final celebration at University Crossing during the last week of classes to see posters the university students created about their research.
Chatting with his friends at the celebration, Rifat Islam, a high school junior in GEAR UP, said he’d thought of going to college online, but his conversations with UMass Lowell students changed his mind. Now he wants to attend Middlesex Community College for two years and transfer to UMass Boston for forensic science.
“College is a big chance to go around different places, meet new people and have new experiences,” he said.
Hurwitz will continue the service-learning research over several years. His study is part of a broader push to get all College Writing II students out of the classroom, whether through service learning or another focused activity, says Assoc. Prof. Ann Dean, head of the First Year Writing Program.
“We want them to understand and experience research as something that happens in the world. It’s not just in a lab; it’s also talking to people,” she says.
The students in her section of College Writing II read dense, peer-reviewed research about the relationship between socio-economic status and academic success, and the challenges of working in groups. Students generally find such reading very difficult and abstract, she says, but working with the Lowell High students made it relevant.
Liam Bennett, a computer science major from Wilmington, did his research on conflict in groups – and got to see how it applied in the groups of university and Lowell High students.
“We had different ideas of what success meant. I used to think emotional fulfillment and financial success were linked, but afterward I could see how they could be different,” he says. “It’s really beneficial if there’s conflict in a group that challenges your knowledge and beliefs.”