At times, Edina Hirt feared she would never complete college.
Still, she persisted, despite multiple delays and hurdles – including a diagnosis of Hodgkin’s lymphoma in the spring of 2017.
Now in remission, the psychology major is graduating from the Honors College – with laurels. Her volunteer work was recognized with the university’s 2019 Martin Luther King Jr. Distinguished Service Award. She also won UMass Lowell’s “29 Who Shine” award, presented to one student on each of the state’s 29 public campuses for their outstanding contributions.
Hirt credits the love and support of her family, friends, professors and advisors for helping her stay on track during her illness.
“I received calls from professors and cards from all my classmates,” she says.
Hirt grew up in Brazil and moved to the United States with her husband in 2006. She had a year and a half of college behind her, but had to start all over again because she barely knew a word of English.
She worked for years as a housecleaner and babysitter, saving up money for college while taking night classes in English. Then she had to take basic writing classes at Middlesex Community College before she could study other subjects. She struggled to keep up.
“I’d come home crying and say, ‘I give up.’ And my husband always said, ‘You can do it,’” she says.
And Hirt did. She earned an associate degree in human services, graduating with a 3.98 GPA. When she transferred to UMass Lowell, she was invited to join the Honors College. She accepted after researching all the academic support resources on campus, especially the Writing Center.
“I joined the Honors College because of what I could learn,” she says. “I have a passion for learning.”
An honors service learning class on homelessness in Mumbai and Lowell channeled another of Hirt’s passions: community service. The class, taught by Assoc. Teaching Prof. Susan Tripathy in sociology, requires students to work for 30 hours at a homeless shelter and complete a group project.
Soon, Hirt was volunteering at three area shelters. Her group designed and printed a pocket-sized guide to dozens of resources in Lowell – including soup kitchens and food pantries, detox centers and health services – for clients of Living Waters Community Center. Hirt baby-sat children at House of Hope so that their parents could study and look for work. She organized donated clothing at Lowell Transitional Living Center.
But in the middle of that semester, Hirt was diagnosed with cancer and began chemotherapy, followed by radiation. Determined to keep moving ahead, she remained in school but cut back to part time.
She was disappointed when her doctors told her she couldn’t work in the shelters anymore, but she found another way to stay involved: She created a website, Community Connections, to help students easily find local volunteer opportunities.
Hirt also began providing respite care for parents of children with special needs. That inspired her to pursue a concentration in behavioral analysis within the psychology program – and a year ago, she got a job as a behavioral therapist for children with autism spectrum disorder. She loved the job so much that she now plans to become a Board-Certified Behavioral Analyst (BCBA) through the master’s program in autism studies.
Overwhelmed last fall when some of her cancer symptoms returned, she decided to drop out of the Honors College to finish school on time and on budget. But everyone rallied to make sure she could graduate with honors.
Tripathy advised her, helping her to make the Community Connections project her honors capstone. Honors Dean Jim Canning found Hirt a scholarship to reduce her financial burdens and suggested that she complete an honors requirement by embarking on an independent course of reading, writing and discussion – with him as her advisor. He followed up with an honors student fellowship this semester so that she could continue reading classics of English and American literature.
Hirt loves reading the books Canning recommends – books that most Americans read in high school. Her favorite so far is “To Kill a Mockingbird,” by Harper Lee, and she’s also devouring challenging works by Shakespeare, Thomas Hardy and Pearl S. Buck.
“If Dean Canning offers me three books, I’ll read four just to show how much I appreciate the opportunity,” she says. “It’s a great way to learn more about American culture.”