By Katharine Webster
Best-selling author and English
Prof. Andre Dubus III
is, in many ways, an unlikely college professor, he told an audience of first-year and incoming transfer students in the Honors College
on a recent Monday afternoon.
Dubus grew up “first-world poor – no heat, no food,” in “tough neighborhoods” in the Merrimack Valley. He was always the new kid at school as his mom moved the family around in search of ever-cheaper rents, before they finally settled in Haverhill, Massachusetts.
After a grown man beat up his 12-year-old brother while he watched, frozen by fear, Dubus joined a boxing gym, trying to overcome his cowardice and the self-loathing it caused, he said. It turned out he had a gift, and he began training as a boxer. But he mostly used his newly acquired skills in fistfights. For years, Dubus roamed the streets, a vigilante looking to beat up the bullies who terrorized others, a period he chronicled in his best-selling memoir, “Townie.”
“I detest violence, but I detested even more the physical coward that I was,” he told the students. “I became a victimizer of victimizers. ... I was no longer afraid to fight; I was afraid not to fight.”
Dubus’ talk was the first in a new series of lectures that form part of the First Year Seminar in Honors (FYSH). The lectures are meant to expose first-year and new transfer students to inspiring professors both within and outside of their own colleges and majors, says Interim Honors Dean Jenifer Whitten-Woodring
“This is all about connecting honors students and faculty,” she says. “The goal is to introduce our new students to some of our excellent faculty from a range of disciplines so that they can learn about their research, how each faculty speaker got started and how their undergraduate experience shaped them.”
About 100 students attend the talks in person each week in the Comley-Lane Theatre, while more than 400 more listen online, either simultaneously or afterward, depending on their schedules, says Megan Hadley
, coordinator of student success and communications for the Honors College.
Previously, FYSH was a seminar that met three hours a week, and each instructor provided their own, unique mix of community experiences and writing assignments. Now, all FYSH students attend or watch the weekly lecture and then meet with their individual instructors for one 75-minute class each week to focus on academic research and writing, since FYSH counts as a first-year writing class. That also gives the instructors more time to meet with students one on one.
“Faculty are giving them more individual feedback and support,” Hadley says.
The Honors College also encourages FYSH students to get to know the city by sponsoring walking tours, including one led by History
Prof. Robert Forrant
, and alerts them to free and low-cost cultural events and venues around Lowell, Hadley says.
This fall, the Monday afternoon lectures feature several faculty members who joined the university in the past year. They include Nursing
Assoc. Prof. Comfort Enah
, who does research on using mobile applications to tackle health disparities, and Public Health
Prof. Wenjun Li
, who uses geographical information systems and health data to understand how neighborhoods influence residents’ health.
At Dubus’ kickoff talk, students listened quietly while he told them how his life changed, putting him on the road to college and success as a writer. One day, “a divine hand” told him to sit down and write something instead of going to train for the Golden Gloves, he said.
“I had never felt this good,” he told them. “When I found creative writing, I found myself.”
Dubus said that he’s not proud of his past, but he wants students to understand that no matter where they come from and what they’ve been through, they can use their time at UMass Lowell to change their lives.
He urged the students to make the most of every opportunity at the university – and reminded them that the faculty are here to help them do that.
“Take risks – healthy risks,” he said. “Make mistakes. Read books that you thought you’d never be interested in; take a class that you think you might not like. Try an athletic event that you might not be any good at. Who cares?
“I love my life because I found my authentic self,” he said. “Let this place, this beautiful place, help you find yours.”
Grace Kombo, a first-year honors nursing major from Billerica, Massachusetts, said she was surprised by Dubus’ history, as she had always thought successful writers started at a young age. She appreciated his message.
“It shows you can really do anything with your life,” she said.