First-Gen Focus Has Always Been a Priority at UML

Monica Kong in front of the RHSA office
“The Leaders in Action training changed everything and set the tone for the rest of my college career,” says Monica Kong.

By Katharine Webster

From an early age, Monica Kong was shy about talking to adults. 

“In the culture I grew up in, you feel like asking questions is bothersome,” says Kong, the daughter of Cambodian refugees. “You show respect for people who are older or more educated than you by making yourself smaller.” 

Kong’s father works full-time for the MBTA as an electrician and has always taken on outside jobs, too, so he could give his two daughters what he and their mother never had: a college education. 

But determining how to get to and through college was up to the girls. For Monica, the process was daunting. 

“You have to figure out college by yourself,” says Kong, who grew up in Lowell and Dracut, Massachusetts. “You have to apply by yourself and figure out financial aid by yourself. It’s a tough-love kind of thing.” 

It’s also typical among first-generation college students, defined at UMass Lowell (and most other institutions) as students who do not have a parent or guardian with a bachelor’s degree. Today, 41% of UMass Lowell undergraduates are first-generation. 

UMass Lowell has always been a gateway to the “American dream” for first-generation students, many of them the children of immigrants and refugees. Opening the doors to opportunities through education is in the university’s DNA — and some of UML’s most successful alumni were first-gen students. Yet the American dream is more elusive for today’s first-generation students. It’s a national problem that is drawing greater attention from colleges and universities. 

Six years after enrolling in a four-year school, a community college or a college-level certificate program, only 20% of first-generation students have completed a bachelor’s degree, compared with 49% of continuing-generation students. And 56% fail to complete any credential at all, compared with 40% of continuing-generation students, according to the Center for First-generation Student Success. 

The main reason is precarious finances. On average, the parents of first-generation college students earn half as much as those who have a parent with a college degree: $46,000 vs. $90,000, the center says. First-generation students work longer hours at outside jobs. They’re older when they start college, more likely to have children, and more likely to be students of color. 

WHERE ONCE low-income students could work their way through a public college or university and graduate debt-free, the cost of public higher education has grown far faster than wages, while state support and financial aid have lagged. One crisis in a student’s life — a job loss, a major car repair bill or a family emergency — can mean the difference between registering for the next semester and dropping out. 

Yet even when families like Kong’s have the financial resources to help their children stay in school, they lack the experience to help them navigate the “hidden curriculum”: how to apply to colleges, understand and obtain financial aid and scholarships, choose the right school, decide on a major, and use academic and career services. 

Colleges and universities are increasingly trying to address both the financial and skills gaps, and among its peers, UMass Lowell is leading the way. In 2020, the Center for First-generation Student Success designated UMass Lowell a “First-gen Forward Advisory Institution,” a model for others to follow. 

THAT RECOGNITION is largely due to the River Hawk Scholars Academy. UMass Lowell piloted the RHSA in fall 2017 to increase retention and success rates for vulnerable first-year students. 

“These students bring a lot to the table, including resilience and initiative that makes them ripe for the kind of community-building that the RHSA fosters.” -Vice Provost for Academic Affairs Julie Nash
The RHSA was the brainchild of Vice Provost for Academic Affairs Julie Nash and English Assoc. Teaching Prof. Matthew Hurwitz, who was named director. They knew that as UMass Lowell grew and tried to serve an increasingly diverse population of high school graduates, some promising students weren’t connecting with the resources they needed to stay in school. 

“Given the rising costs of college and the high levels of responsibility many of these students have, we wanted to relieve some of the stresses they’re experiencing,” Nash says. 

Hurwitz worked with the Admissions office to invite incoming first-year students who had taken part in college access programs, especially at Lowell and Lawrence high schools. 

That inaugural year, the RHSA enrolled about 80 first-year students who received early move-in, priority course registration, a chance to apply for RHSA-only scholarships, and a dedicated RHSA advisor. With help from offices across campus, the RHSA hosted workshops on time management, financial literacy, academic success, leadership, and finding jobs and internships related to students’ career goals. 

The new River Hawk Scholars bonded over social activities and in small groups led by more experienced students called peer leaders they could ask for advice. The model was a success. Nearly all the students completed their first year and returned as sophomores. 

“They helped me to pick out a dorm and a meal plan, because I didn’t know anything about college,” says Emily Crespo ’21, an English and music composition graduate from East Boston who was in that first cohort and went on to become a peer leader. “I felt that love and companionship. I call it the RHSA family.” 

Matthew Hurwitz
“By helping others, the students come to see that others are equally happy to help them, and that they’re all part of a mutually supportive community,” Matt Hurwitz says.
During that pilot year, Hurwitz and Nash realized that as diverse as the River Hawk Scholars were, nearly all of them had one thing in common: They were first-generation. They decided the RHSA would target first-generation students going forward. “These students bring a lot to the table, including resilience and initiative that makes them ripe for the kind of community-building that the RHSA fosters,” Nash says. 

IN THE MEANTIME, the Office of Multicultural Affairs had started River Hawk Rising, a four-year mentoring and support program for diverse students who had graduated from small urban charter schools or come through college access programs. Students in River Hawk Rising started off with a summer Student Success Summit and went on to attend workshops and individual check-ins with staff. 

Both the RHSA and River Hawk Rising grew rapidly, and students who “graduated” from the RHSA after their first year could move on to River Hawk Rising if they wanted ongoing support. 

Some students, like Gifty Kessie, now a junior majoring in mechanical engineering, joined both from the start. 

“I saw River Hawk Rising as more of an opportunity to get to know students inclusively, because it was a smaller group of people. It’s mostly people of color, and I felt very welcome,” Kessie says. “In the RHSA, I saw benefits like scholarship applications, résumé building, lots of activities, and help learning more about campus life and activities.”  

Through a partnership with the Leonsis Foundation, 20 students in the District of Columbia College Access Program come to UMass Lowell on four-year merit scholarships every year, and they also receive support from both programs.

Now, both the RHSA and River Hawk Rising have come under one leader: Leslie Wong, director of Multicultural Affairs and the new dean of equity and inclusion. She says the programs are complementary, with a revamped River Hawk Rising 360 offering more tailored programming to groups of students with different needs, including international, transfer and LGBTQ+ students, and the RHSA focusing on first-generation students. 

“Previously, these programs were growing so fast that we were busy figuring out the best strategies to help our students, and we saw that we needed a place to ground all of these experiences while meeting their different needs,” Wong says. “The commonality is that everyone wants a sense of belonging, a sense of community, and to be healthy, happy and thriving.” 

HURITZ SAYS he loves working with first-generation college students because of their determination, work ethic and self-reliance. But that last quality can trip them up when they get to college, he says, because, like Kong, they are often reluctant to ask for help. 

He believes that one of the best ways to help students overcome that reluctance is by getting them involved in campus organizations, service and research with faculty. 

“By helping others, the students come to see that others are equally happy to help them, and that they’re all part of a mutually supportive community,” he says. 

That’s what happened to Kong. 

She came to UML as a biology major, thinking it was the best path to a career in health care because her older sister had earned a B.S. in biology before studying to be a registered nurse. 

When Kong realized that she was more interested in systemic solutions to health care problems than scientific ones, her upbringing made her hesitant to ask professors or advisors for help. “I thought I was supposed to figure things out on my own,” she says. 

Early in her second semester, Kong got an email inviting RHSA students to participate in free leadership training with Shaima Ragab, then director of student affairs (now director of faculty success). Kong’s intuition told her that she needed to do it, even though it was way out of her comfort zone. 

She says the Leaders in Action program was “life-changing.” She made deeper connections with other RHSA students and realized she wasn’t alone in her struggles—and that she could draw on her experiences to help others. She applied to be an RHSA peer leader as a sophomore. 

“Shaima was there to listen to the students and empower us and tell us that our voices mattered on the campus and in the community,” Kong says. “I wanted to help other first-gen students gain more confidence and be kinder to themselves.” 

The training and the RHSA also helped her understand the importance of advocating for herself and seeking help. With encouragement from several friends, she spoke with Public Health Asst. Teaching Prof. Amy Smalarz — and switched majors. She’s never looked back. 

“The Leaders in Action training changed everything and set the tone for the rest of my college career,” she says. 

FOUR YEARS in, the RHSA has succeeded in giving first-generation students the boost they need to stay in school and succeed academically at the same rates as their continuing-generation peers, Nash says. Overall, they do better than their first-gen classmates who are not in the program, she says. 

But the RHSA isn’t resting on its laurels. It continues to grow and innovate by listening to students, collaborating with other university departments and sharing best practices with other First-gen Forward colleges and universities. 

For the past four years, the RHSA has benefited from a Campus Compact AmeriCorps volunteer to help with research and program development. And University Advancement has worked with donors to set up scholarships for first-generation students. 

The RHSA has also inspired more student success programs that include first-generation students, while not exclusive to them. Summer programs that ease the transition to college have been particularly well-received. 

Among them are RAMP, for young women and others who are underrepresented in engineering; SoarCS, a similar program for computer science majors; and a STEM bridge program for transfer students from community colleges. 

In summer 2019, the university introduced Launch! for all incoming first-year students. They can take one or two summer classes online at reduced tuition, and all new first-year or transfer students can attend free, online, college-based seminars that introduce them to faculty and opportunities in their academic areas, as well as weekly workshops on study skills, time management and more. 

Camden Hedrick and Jayla Josey
Camden Hedrick, left, and Jayla Josey have become "besties" through First to Launch!, a new summer bridge program for first-generation college students.
This past summer, thanks to a pair of $100,000 grants from the Cummings Foundation and Bank of America, the RHSA piloted First to Launch!, which piggybacks on Launch! Thirty RHSA students received a scholarship to take one online Launch! class. The students also met one-on-one with an RHSA peer mentor each week and attended a series of Friday morning RHSA programs and social activities. 

Camden Hedrick, a first-year psychology major from Stevensville, Maryland, loved meeting the other RHSA students in person every Friday — including his new “bestie,” Jayla Josey, a fellow psychology major from East Bridgewater, Massachusetts, who also lived in on campus. 

“Every Friday is the highlight of my week, just because I get to be around a bunch of people who are all really awesome — my classmates, the peer mentors and the people they bring in to talk to us,” Hedrick said in July. 

The two $100,000 grants also will allow the RHSA to extend the program to sophomores and develop programming for first-generation juniors and seniors, including transfer students. The emphasis for older students will shift to opportunities like study abroad, research with faculty, service learning, internships and co-ops, Hurwitz says. 

“The first year is about adjusting to college, building a community and exploring,” Hurwitz says. “The second year and beyond are more about focusing on a major and starting to seek out opportunities that will help students prepare for careers or graduate school.” 

AS THE UNIVERSITY expands first-generation support services, students are taking the lead. 

Last year, Kong helped fellow public health major Kelsey Gonzalez ’21 start a campus chapter of a national honor society for first-generation students: Alpha Alpha Alpha. Their goal: Keep first-gen students academically motivated and connected beyond their first year. 

Tri-Alpha inducted its first 129 members during First-generation Student Week in November 2020, and this year it’s inviting first-gen graduate students, faculty and staff to apply for membership, too. Gonzalez was the inaugural president, with Kong as secretary. 

Now a senior, Kong has blossomed as a leader. She’s president of Tri-Alpha and vice president of the Cambodian American Student Association, as well as an active member of Omicron Delta Kappa, a leadership honor society. She is also a team leader for the RHSA, mentoring both peer leaders and first-year students. 

As she prepares for graduate school in genetic counseling, Kong credits the faculty, staff and students she met through the RHSA with preparing her to succeed—and to lead. 

“The RHSA empowered me not only as a student, but as a leader and a person who wants to serve the community,” she says. “I couldn’t be the kind of mindful leader I am today without all of my mentors.”