Most people flee hurricanes. Matt Cherkerzian wants to be in the eye of the storm.
Cherkerzian came to UMass Lowell as a mechanical engineering major – because he was that kid who loves to take everything apart and put it back together, including a junked truck he rebuilt by reading the repair manual.
In college, though, calculus tripped him up. As he struggled with math, he changed his major to plastics engineering and then chemical engineering. He says Douglas Cooper, in the Centers for Learning and Academic Support Services, spent hours patiently helping him figure out how to manage each change.
“Doug was a mentor in how to get through college,” Cherkerzian says.
Still, Cherkerzian almost gave up. On academic probation, he quit school to help his mom take care of his father, who had cancer, and worked for another semester after his father died. He wanted to join the U.S. Air Force and become a pararescue specialist, but his father had made him promise to finish college first.
Reluctantly, he returned to UML – this time as a criminal justice major with a concentration in homeland security. He’s also minoring in psychology.
“I’m glad now that I tried engineering, even though I failed. I realized it wasn’t for me: I didn’t want to do something I couldn’t be the best at,” he says. “Honestly, though, I had no idea what to do with myself.”
In criminal justice, he found inspiring professors who got him interested first in terrorism, then in emergency management. Asst. Professor Neil Shortland involved him in the first P2P Countering Extremism team as an intern with the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies.
Since then, he’s worked on Shortland’s research into critical decision-making by soldiers and first responders.
That research ties into Cherkerzian’s career goal: working for FEMA, overseeing rescue and rebuilding efforts after disasters. He plans to earn a master’s degree in emergency management and pursue paramedic training as well.
Off campus, Cherkerzian already works summers and weekends as an EMT. He volunteers on a search and rescue team that helps the Massachusetts State Police, and he staffs medical tents at major events with the Medical Reserve Corps. He’s certified in CPR and as a Stop the Bleed instructor.
He also volunteers with Team Rubicon, a nonprofit that sends teams of military veterans and first responders to help after disasters. Over summer break, he spent a week with a team in Michigan, helping families whose homes had been damaged by major flooding.