Yahayra Michel ’07, ’09 was a first-generation college student. She knew she loved learning, but she wasn’t sure what career to pursue.
She found her mentors at UMass Lowell. And, after earning multiple degrees, including a Ph.D. in sociology, she returned here to teach, first in the Army ROTC program and later as an adjunct faculty member while she earned her Ph.D.
Now, she’s starting her third year as an assistant teaching professor in the School of Criminology and Justice Studies, and she mentors first-generation students in the River Hawk Scholars Academy – a role for which she was awarded the university’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Distinguished Service Award in 2021.
“I’m an academic today, probably because of the foundation that four mentors established in me. They were so good to me that I associated their mentorship to the institution, so UMass Lowell just feels like home,” she says.
Michel grew up in the Dominican Republic and New Jersey. She attended Rutgers University for one year – but when she got her financial aid letter for sophomore year, reality hit: “I said, ‘Oh my God, how am I going to make this happen?’”
Her brother had joined the Navy a year earlier, and Michel decided to join the Army. They moved their mom to Massachusetts so she could be closer to family members here. Michel spent her first year-and-a-half of active duty in San Antonio, Texas, and Washington, D.C., before returning to Massachusetts, where she was able to resume college, this time at UMass Lowell.
Michel served for a total of 16 years, both active duty and reserve. The Army helped pay for her schooling at UML while she earned undergraduate degrees in psychology and criminal justice, and then a master’s in criminal justice.
Although she had started out in psychology, during her military service she found out that a very close friend – her “battle buddy” – was a victim of domestic violence. Michel didn’t understand why such a strong woman would stay in an abusive relationship. She wanted to learn more.  
“I met a whole bunch of professors in criminal justice who were sociologists, and they were studying domestic violence and also studying its effects on children,” she says. “They were my mentors, helping me find my way.”
Those professors, now retired, were Eve Buzawa, Alison C. Cares, David Hirschel and Linda Williams. With their encouragement, Yahayra won the Outstanding Undergraduate and Graduate Student Awards in criminal justice before going on to earn two more master’s degrees in theology and family counseling from Miami International Seminary in Haverhill, Mass., and a Ph.D. from University of New Hampshire. She now does research on children and violence, including parenting practices that encourage or discourage violent methods of solving conflict.
While studying, Michel gained teaching experience in the Army. She worked in a medical unit, deploying to Kosovo, and then became a career counselor and prepared soldiers for deployment. As a reservist, she taught in UMass Lowell’s Army ROTC program.
“I just love learning and I love teaching – I was born to teach,” she says. “In the Army, I was constantly training and teaching people. In the military, it’s natural to prepare the next generation, building up the system, training the next person who’s going to do your job.”
Now, Michel is training and mentoring students in the River Hawk Scholars Academy (RHSA), a supportive program for first-year students who are among the first generation in their families to attend a four-year college. She mentors sophomores, juniors and seniors who went through the RHSA themselves and now mentor groups of first-year students as “peer leaders” and “team leaders.”
She models good mentoring for them while giving them the kind of advice that no one gave her until she found her faculty mentors, late in her undergraduate career.
“When I was a student, I just came to campus, took my classes, and left. The only thing that kept me in school was my love of learning,” she says.
“I wish somebody would have said to me, ‘A college education isn’t just learning from a book: There are life lessons that can be learned. Belonging to a place and a community is a necessity for human development, and human relationships are just as important as content in a textbook.’”