Funded by DC-College Access Program and Leonsis Foundation
By Katharine Webster
An innovative partnership has brought 20 first-year students from Washington, D.C., to UMass Lowell on merit scholarships for the first time.
The students all came through the District of Columbia College Access Program (DC-CAP), a nonprofit that prepares students in public and public charter high schools to succeed in college through counseling and scholarships. Since it was founded 20 years ago, DC-CAP has helped thousands of students, many of them from low-income and minority households, pursue a college education.
The new partnership, which includes financial support from the Leonsis Foundation, contributes to the university’s goal of making a great education accessible to all students.
“This program not only supports these students, but emphasizes the cultural capital they possess. Sure, some of them come from challenging backgrounds, but these are the kinds of students that UMass Lowell has always attracted,” says Associate Director of Multicultural Affairs Francine Coston, the program coordinator. “These students are go-getters and hard workers. They look for the challenge.”
Jae’la Rowles and her twin sister, Kayla, are among the group. Jae’la, a criminal justice major who plans to minor in psychology and education, says that when her DC-CAP counselor suggested she apply to UMass Lowell and the new DC-CAP Scholar program, she took advantage of it.
“My mother was always worried about how we would pay for college, so I was happy to lift some of that burden from her,” she says.
The DC-CAP Scholars moved in early and attended a three-day orientation with 50 other first-year students in the River Hawk Rising Scholars program. River Hawk Rising, run by the Office of Multicultural Affairs, offers academic, social, career and emotional support to students throughout their time here.
Kayla, who’s majoring in business management and marketing, says Coston examined her class schedule to make sure she was taking advantage of all of her AP credits. She wasn’t – but with Coston’s help, she fixed that.
“Ms. Francine is always checking in on us,” Kayla says. “At orientation, they explained all the resources UMass Lowell has for us. At my high school, they didn’t do that – and I really needed that.”
“It felt like family here from the minute I stepped on campus,” Jae’la adds.
The DC-CAP Scholars are also enrolled in the River Hawk Scholars Academy, a supportive community for first-year, first-generation students. Each DC-CAP Scholar is living in a first-year Living-Learning Community of their choice. And many are in the Honors College, too.
At a welcome dinner in Allen House, the DC-CAP Scholars met faculty and staff from across campus, including Provost Joseph Hartman, Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Larry Siegel, and Asst. Teaching Prof. Ralph Jordan from the Manning School of Business, who is serving as one of the group’s faculty mentors.
Siegel asked the students to speak up about any questions, concerns or struggles they might have – and to work with the university on solutions that will make the program better.
“We want you to help us build the perfect support system. We don’t have all the answers,” he said. “Help us build the program for the future.”
The DC-CAP partnership with UMass Lowell grew out of the friendship between former state Sen. Steven Panagiotakos of Lowell, a major booster of the university, and Ted Leonsis, managing partner of Monumental Sports & Entertainment, which owns sports franchises including the NHL’s Washington Capitals and the NBA’s Washington Wizards. Leonsis, who is chairman of DC-CAP’s board, grew up in Lowell and attended what was then Lowell State for two years before transferring to Georgetown University.
DC-CAP will provide retention counseling and scholarships to 20 DC-CAP students each year. The scholarships, renewable for a total of five years, will be matched by the Leonsis Foundation. Senior Assistant Director of Multicultural Recruitment Troy Lazaro says the five-year financial commitment will allow students to fully immerse themselves in their studies and take advantage of opportunities, such as a professional co-op, that might extend their college careers beyond four years.
More than 100 students applied to UMass Lowell as well as the DC-CAP Scholars program. Last April, DC-CAP brought 40 of the most interested students to campus for a long weekend before selecting the 20 scholarship recipients.
The weather that weekend was terrible – cold and rainy – but the high school seniors got a warm welcome from the UML students who hosted them, as well as staff and faculty.
Lisett Cordoba-Pren, an art and design major, says that was part of the reason she decided to take a chance on UMass Lowell. She also wanted to go to college away from home and knew that UML’s graphic design program had a strong reputation.
On the first day of classes, she was already settling in.
“I really like the school – it’s really pretty. I like the environment: The people are nice,” she says. “It’s secluded enough, but not too secluded. Downtown isn’t too far from the campus.”
Lazaro says the program is unique, and he hopes to see it replicated through similar partnerships with college preparedness programs and foundations in other major cities.