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River Hawk Scholars Academy Gives First-Gen Students a Home

Program Recognized as a National Model

First-year, first-generation students at UML listen during induction day for the River Hawk Scholars Academy Photo by Tory Wesnofske
First-year, first-generation college students listen intently before their induction into the River Hawk Scholars Academy in fall 2019.

10/23/2020
By Katharine Webster

When Emily Crespo joined the River Hawk Scholars Academy (RHSA) three years ago, the first-generation college student from East Boston was just looking for some extra help in navigating her transition to college. That’s what the RHSA offered.

But Crespo, now a senior double-majoring in English and music composition, found so much more. She made close friends and found a second home.

“They helped me to pick out a dorm and a meal plan, because I didn’t know anything about college,” Crespo says. “I felt that love and companionship. I call it the RHSA family.”

Recently, the nonprofit Center for First-Generation Student Success recognized UMass Lowell as a model for other colleges and universities across the U.S., designating the university as a First-Gen Forward Advisory Institution for the 2020-21 academic year. 
Peer leaders in the River Hawk Scholars Academy, 2019-2020 Photo by Tory Wesnofske
Emily Crespo, wearing a red scarf, with other RHSA peer leaders in summer 2019.

The university is highlighting and celebrating its first-generation students during the week of Nov. 1-7, leading up to national First-generation Celebration Day on Nov. 8.

“This university has always welcomed first-generation college students, but today they face even greater challenges, so we are increasing our efforts to provide them with the support and resources they need to succeed and excel,” says Julie Nash, vice provost for student success. “We’re pleased that the Center for First-Generation Student Success has recognized our efforts and we're honored to serve as a model for other institutions.”

When Crespo joined in fall 2017, the RHSA was a pilot program open to any first-year student in four of the university’s six colleges who wanted extra support. Nearly 100 joined. 

The following year, the RHSA decided to narrow its focus to first-generation students, offering early move-in and a special orientation that introduced them to campus resources, as well as ongoing events and programming.

In just four years, the RHSA has expanded dramatically and now serves more than 300 first-year students annually across all six colleges. It has started mentoring programs that connect students one-on-one with faculty, staff members and adults in the workforce. 
RHSA director and Associate Teaching Prof. of English Matthew Hurwitz speaks at induction day in fall 2019 Photo by Tory Wesnofske
RHSA Director Matthew Hurwitz speaks to nearly 350 new River Hawk Scholars in 2019.

Multiple sections of the required first-year writing courses, College Writing I and II, cater specifically to RHSA students, says academy Director Matthew Hurwitz, who is also an associate teaching professor of English. 

But the heart of the RHSA’s success is the peer-to-peer mentoring system, in which RHSA “graduates” serve as mentors for first-year students, helping them get to know each other and the university, Hurwitz says. 

“Peer leaders” undergo training before they meet in groups with first-year students in the same college, while “team leaders” – juniors and seniors – mentor the peer leaders, along with some new students. 

With this year’s entering class mostly studying online and living at home, peer leaders are holding one-on-one virtual meetings with first-year students, too, Hurwitz says.

“We’re trying to focus on building up relationships of trust among our peer leaders and incoming freshmen, and also trying to connect freshmen with some faculty,” he says.

First-year student Tien Pham, who is exploring different majors, says he feels connected with his peer leader and the other RHSA students in his group. He’s also learning more about university resources by attending events that the RHSA promotes, including workshops with the Career and Co-op Center.

“I’ve gotten a sense of community out of it,” he says. “It actually gives me a lot of comfort knowing that there are a lot of other people like me, and that there are RHSA-specific classes that I can take.”
Monica Kong and other 2019-20 peer leaders in the River Hawk Scholars Academy Photo by Tory Wesnofske
Monica Kong, far right, is in her second year as an RHSA peer leader for health sciences students.

Monica Kong, a junior majoring in public health, mentored 18 health sciences students last year, the first year that students in health sciences and engineering were accepted into the RHSA, and is peer leader to another 12 this year. She loves the job and her connections with faculty and staff. 

“I really want to be the type of person I needed when I first came to college – someone they can relate to and talk with and not be too formal with, like a big sister,” she says. “And the faculty members, I’m inspired by them. It’s a nice, big community. We all like to help each other out and support each other.”

This year for the first time, every college has designated faculty advocates. They will host low-key events and promote other ways for the River Hawk Scholars to build their support networks and learn about all of the different opportunities available on campus, including various academic and career pathways; research with faculty; internships, service learning and co-ops; and bachelor’s-to-master’s programs, Hurwitz says. 

Clinical Assoc. Prof. of Physical Therapy and KinesiologyEdgar Torres, the first person in his family to graduate from college and a faculty advocate for River Hawk Scholars in the Zuckerberg College of Health Sciences, says he always gives first-generation students this piece of advice: Go to professors’ office hours regularly, not just when you need help in their classes.

Torres says he rarely attended office hours while in college – but every time he did, he had an important conversation, including one that helped him choose his major in exercise science and another that led him to a job as a teaching assistant. Now, his office door is open for any River Hawk Scholars who want to learn more about careers in the health sciences. 

“The wider your exposure, the more likely you are to make a decision that meets your needs,” he says.
Gifty Kessie works on a lab at UML's RAMP camp in summer 2019 with Danielle Le Photo by UMass Lowell
RHSA peer leader Gifty Kessie, left, went through several student success programs for first-year students. She is shown with Danielle Le at RAMP.

Gifty Kessie, a sophomore mechanical engineering major from Worcester, Mass., describes herself as shy, but says that she’s no longer afraid to ask professors for help when she needs it. 

Kessie says that her peer leader pushed her to step outside her comfort zone. She did, in part by joining several campus organizations, including the National Society of Black Engineers and the Association of Students of African Origin. Now she’s a peer leader herself, and she hopes to be a team leader next year.

“I learned to never say ‘No’ to any opportunity that comes my way,” she says.

When Kessie was interviewed as an RHSA student of the month, she had to discuss all of her activities and accomplishments, something she found surprisingly hard to do. 

“I don’t give myself enough credit and I brush off my accomplishments,” she says.

Asst. Teaching Prof. of Criminal JusticeYahayra Michel ’07 ’09, a first-generation college graduate herself, mentors the peer leaders and team leaders. She says Kessie’s feelings are common among first-generation students.

“They are all absolutely amazing. They’re so resilient, and so good, and so hard on themselves, so a lot of the work that we do is to contextualize their achievements,” she says. “We model to them; we mentor them in the way that we want to see them mentor their peers.”