Debby Fernand chose UMass Lowell for the diversity of the campus, the strength of the Psychology Department and the university’s location in Lowell.
The icing on the cake was her invitation to join the River Hawk Scholars Academy (RHSA), a supportive community for first-year, first-generation college students. She made her first close friends during the RHSA orientation and met helpful faculty and staff, too.
“The RHSA was the first aspect of college I got to know and love. I am really introverted and quiet, but I enjoyed the Welcome Day and talking about my identity as a first-gen college student,” she says. “It just felt like I was part of a very special and diverse group of individuals.”
Fernand knew that she wanted to study psychology before she arrived. Then, several classes she took in her sophomore year – in social psychology, community psychology and the sociology of race and ethnicity – inspired her to double-major in sociology. She also added an interdisciplinary minor in Race and Ethnic Studies.
“Taking on sociology was exciting, but it also felt like a lot, so the Race and Ethnic Studies minor helps narrow my choices when I’m picking classes,” she says. “It definitely gives me a focus.”
After making dean’s list her first semester, Fernand was invited to join another group that’s been important to her college experience: the Honors College
Her sophomore year, she applied for and got an Honors College Student Fellowship to write a research paper on the formation of children’s racial identity and the effect of messages they receive from parents and the media, advised by Visiting Prof. of English Melissa Juchniewicz.
“I love the freedom that you have to look into different things that you like,” she says.
She’s also loved taking interdisciplinary honors seminars, including Race and Rupture in 1920s American Literature, which added a humanities perspective to her studies in racial identity. 
As she starts her junior year, Fernand is expanding her network of faculty mentors. As an Emerging Scholar, she will work with Criminal Justice Asst. Teaching Prof. Yahayra Michel ’07 ’09, co-director of the Race and Ethnic Studies minor, on an analysis of how proverbs are used by parents to instruct their children and how those proverbs might promote peaceful conflict resolution or violent and criminal behavior.
Fernand isn’t sure where it’s all leading, but she already knows that she wants to go to graduate school, and she plans to take advantage of more research opportunities to help her choose a direction. 
Michel is mentoring Fernand in her role as a team leader within the River Hawk Scholars Academy, too.
Fernand wanted to stay involved with the RHSA after freshman year, so she took a four-session leadership class in the spring and applied to be an RHSA peer leader. As a sophomore, she mentored a group of first-year RHSA students. As a junior, she stepped up to team leader, mentoring a group of 12 first-year students and also guiding four peer leaders.
Fernand also got involved with the larger university community – something the RHSA encourages – by serving on the university’s mental health committee. Now she has a work-study job with the UMatter2 mental health initiative, helping to do social media outreach to students.
“I just love being a part of this community,” she says. “I love being around faculty and staff who mirror some of my interests.”