For Neyder Fernandez, a native of Lowell and a product of its public schools, going to UMass Lowell seemed like the logical next step in his education.
“I just felt like it was a natural fit, because the university blends so well with the city,” he says. “The price, the location, the people – a lot of my friends from high school are at UMass Lowell, so I felt like I would start off on a good footing because I’d already have a social circle here.”
Although he applied other places, UMass Lowell offered another “bonus,” he says: the River Hawk Scholars Academy (RHSA), a supportive program for first-year, first-generation college students that uses a peer-to-peer mentoring approach.
Fernandez says he felt welcomed and supported in the RHSA, especially by his “peer leader,” Danelia Ramirez Aguilar, who understood some of the pressures of being a first-generation student.
“My parents are immigrants from Colombia, and my mom did some college in Colombia but didn’t graduate,” he says. “I’ve always been … the family investment. We’re not struggling, but the label ‘most likely to succeed’ was pushed on me as a child. My parents would say, ‘You can do anything that you want to, and we have your back.’”
Fernandez says he’s fortunate that, through loans, help from his parents, and scholarships through the RHSA as well as the Gagnon Memorial Scholarship for student government, he does not have to work during the school year. He’s making the most of that opportunity, studying as much as he can and getting involved in both the campus and Lowell communities.
He’s majoring in political science and minoring in economics and French, with the goal of working in the United Nations, the State Department, the World Bank or a similar agency.
As a first-year student, he decided to take the Leaders in Action course and apply to become an RHSA peer leader himself. As a sophomore, he mentored a group of first-year students who began college virtually, during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“As a peer leader, you are the face of the organization that they see the most often,” he says. “I want them to know that they at least have one friend at the university who can provide them with guidance. I want them to know that the RHSA is an extra resource that’s actively engaging them.”
He got elected as a senator to the Student Government Association (SGA) and became active with the UMass Lowell Student Democrats, first as treasurer and then as political outreach director. He’s helped both organizations with recruiting new members, as well as with their finances. He’s Boston regional director for College Democrats of Massachusetts, too.
He also serves on a committee dedicated to more effectively addressing mental health issues among students and promoting better coordination among the Wellness Center, the UMatter2 mental health initiative on campus and the SGA.
Off campus, he worked on U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy’s 2020 Democratic primary challenge to U.S. Sen. Ed Markey. Fernandez was disappointed at Kennedy’s loss – but he gained a lot from the experience.
“It was an opportunity to work on my first Senate campaign and I won a delegate seat to the state party convention,” he says. “So even though Kennedy lost, it was a real opportunity to learn about how the Democratic Party and elections work.”
Fernandez was recently appointed as the university’s representative to the new Citizens Advisory Committee for the City of Lowell, which aims to improve both police practices and police-community relations. The committee was established in the wake of George Floyd’s death and the ensuing Black Lives Matter protests.
Fernandez is proud to be working on a project that will improve his home community, and hopes to bring in more faculty and students to help.
“There are thousands of bright students and professors that have all of this knowledge. It’s such a resource,” he says. “Why not use it?”