By Katharine Webster
You know those students who are doing it all, inside and outside the classroom? The ones who want to be challenged and pushed even further beyond their comfort zones? And the students who step up to lead or volunteer because they see a need, but doubt that they’re natural leaders?
The new River Hawk Experience Distinction, a unique program that pairs coursework with experiences outside the classroom, is for them.
And it will show up on their transcripts.
“This generation is very focused on doing work that’s meaningful and makes a difference. This is a way of recognizing and supporting that by helping them make connections between their values, the activities that are important to them and the curriculum,” says Julie Nash, vice provost for student success.
Nash came up with the idea for the RHED program after discussions with faculty, staff and students about how to better support student involvement outside the classroom and connect it with classroom learning – because engaged students are more successful. She also wanted to recognize students who are already very involved, without burdening them with more requirements.
“It gives them an institutional marker that they’ve accomplished something above and beyond,” she says.
Students can earn a River Hawk Experience Distinction (RHED) in one of four areas: entrepreneurship, leadership, community engagement or global engagement. They must take two preapproved courses in their area, such as a service-learning or leadership-oriented class.
They also must complete two significant experiences, such as a study abroad program or an entrepreneurial project. The experiences can take place on campus or off, but they must be approved by a committee of faculty and staff.
The entrepreneurship track launched this semester, in partnership with DifferenceMaker. The other three tracks will roll out in the fall, although some summer classes and experiences may count. A $30,000 VentureWell grant is supporting two faculty fellows and other costs to help with the rollout, Nash says.
Students can only earn an RHED in one area, says Vanessa Farzner, who is coordinating the program and tracking the students’ progress.
“We want them to have one intentional focus to connect what they’re doing in the classroom with what they’re doing outside of class for that deeper, applied learning,” she says.
Linda Barg, a junior majoring in finance and marketing and minoring in economics, signed up for the leadership track as soon as she saw an e-mail announcing the RHED program.
For the past two years, Barg has been president of the campus Finance Society, which has seen attendance at its events grow exponentially, thanks to her focus on educating students about personal financial wellness and hosting dynamic speakers from industry. Yet Barg knows she could improve her leadership skills.
“I’m excited about signing up for designated leadership classes where I’ll be surrounded by other students who want to be leaders,” she says. “And I think this is a great distinction to have in a school that’s growing so dramatically. It’s really great to be able to stand out, especially to employers.”
Honors student Dave Seybert is only in his first year at UMass Lowell, but he’s already started on the RHED in entrepreneurship. A marketing and business analytics major who’s minoring in computer science, Seybert and fellow first-year honors student Greg Montemurro won the fall DifferenceMaker competition in the Manning School of Business for their cybersecurity concept, creating a three-step biometric login for mobile financial applications.
This spring, Seybert is starting another DifferenceMaker project that will count toward his RHED: creating a nonprofit to advocate for clean public water supplies in the United States, with a focus on high lead levels and water scarcity.
“The River Hawk Experience Distinction embodies what I’m already trying to do,” Seybert says. “I don’t enjoy just doing school. I like utilizing my entrepreneurial abilities to do something more through school.”
Montemurro, who is double-majoring in computer science and business administration, is also starting a new DifferenceMaker project: creating and analyzing a huge Twitter database, using machine learning and natural language processing, to develop an intelligent, evolving algorithm that can alert users when a tweet may be posted by a propaganda bot.
“This is something I’m passionate about personally. It’s a really big issue, and it’s not being addressed,” he says. “I was going to do it anyway, so why not have it on my transcript?”
Amy Liss, associate director of student activities and leadership, says a key component of the RHED program is a deliberate reflection by each student on how their classroom learning deepens their practice, and vice versa.
“We so rarely get a chance to reflect,” she says. “I’m hoping that this will give students a chance to think deliberately about how they can contribute to society in a meaningful way.”
Liss, who helped Nash develop the program from the get-go, says she will focus on the leadership RHED going forward. Both of them hope the program will nudge students who lack confidence toward greater involvement.
“Our students are gritty and resourceful – but they’re humble to a fault,” Liss says. “I want them to learn that leadership is for everyone: It’s a set of skills and behaviors that can be strengthened. And I want them to understand that you shouldn’t always have to look up for leaders. You can look inside and around you.”