Edgar Torres, clinical associate professor of physical therapy and kinesiology, grew up in a tiny town in New Jersey, the son of farmworkers. He enjoyed school and was a good student.
When it came time to pick classes for his sophomore year of high school, his parents didn’t know how to advise him, so he just signed up to take classes similar to those he’d taken freshman year. Fortunately, a guidance counselor intervened.
“The guidance counselor pulled me aside and said, ‘You already took classes at this level and you’ve done pretty well, so why not take these other courses?’” and recommended college prep courses instead, he says.
Torres worked hard and became the first in his family to earn a college degree, at Rutgers University, one of New Jersey’s public universities. So he knows what it’s like to be a first-generation college student, with your family’s hopes and dreams riding on you – and with few clues about how to proceed.
He’s always enjoyed getting to know first-generation students, sharing experiences, and helping them as they try to move between two different worlds. Now, he’s a faculty mentor for health sciences majors in the River Hawk Scholars Academy, a supportive program for first-year, first-generation college students at UMass Lowell.
“You’re stuck in the middle, so if I can help a few students navigate that, it would be good for them and good for me, too,” he says.
One thing he’s noticed is that first-generation students and students of color are often afraid to ask questions in class, speak up during discussions or come to see him for help. So he always addresses the issue directly, encouraging students to participate actively and come to his office hours.
“I tell them, ‘There are 90 of you in this class and it’s easy to hide, but the way to understand the material is to get involved in the class, ask questions and get to know your professor,’” he says.
When he was in college, no one gave him that advice, so he rarely went to office hours. But every time he did, he had an important conversation, including one that led him to choose exercise science as a major and another that led to a job as a research lab assistant.
That’s another common struggle for first-generation students, he says: figuring out how far and where they want to go with their education. They’re not always aware of the possibilities, or how to afford graduate school.
In Torres’ case, he worked for a while, earned a master’s degree in health-fitness management, then became a commissioned officer in the Army and earned a master’s degree in physical therapy through the U.S. Army-Baylor University physical therapy program. Later, he earned doctorates in physical therapy and orthopedic physical therapy, too.
“I tell students, ‘The pathways to success are not always linear,’” he says.
Now, Torres teaches in UMass Lowell’s doctor of physical therapy program. But he insists on teaching at least one undergraduate course, Kinesiology, every year, in part to continue encouraging first-generation students and students of color, who are underrepresented in the profession.
“There are certain things from my experience that I hope they can learn,” he says.