Newly created Graduate Ambassadors program helps build connections

Grad students volunteer on the Merrimack River Image by Ed Brennen
Graduate students Swati Dileep, left, and Sri Kuppa fish a piece of plastic out of the Merrimack River during Graduate Volunteer Day.

By Ed Brennen

In the five years Mark-Henry Kamga has called Lowell home, the Ph.D. student from Cameroon had never walked along the banks of the Merrimack River as it flows past the historic mills downtown.

On a sunny Saturday morning in mid-November, Kamga finally found reason to visit. He and a dozen other grad students donned work gloves and spent two hours picking up debris along the riverbank as part of the university’s first-ever Graduate Volunteer Day.

Organized by the Graduate Student Association and the newly formed Graduate Ambassadors program, the day offered students three volunteer opportunities to choose from around the city: preparing and organizing goods for those in need at the Wish Project; serving food and cleaning at the Lowell Transitional Living Center; and working with the Clean River Project to beautify the banks of the Merrimack.

For Kamga, volunteering helped him connect with the city — and with fellow graduate students whom he might not otherwise meet.

Grad students clean walls at the Lowell Transitional Living Center Image by Ed Brennen
Graduate students scrub walls at the Lowell Transitional Living Center during the first Graduate Volunteer Day.

“It’s good to see Lowell from a different perspective, not just on the way to class,” said Kamga, who earned a master’s in chemical engineering from the Francis College of Engineering in 2011 and is now working on his doctorate. “You come to Lowell and everything looks nice, but there are a lot of people working in the background to keep it that way. This is an opportunity to immerse yourself in the work while meeting other grad students.”

Nearly 60 graduate students participated in the volunteer day, including 25 at the Wish Project and 18 at the LTLC.

Biochemistry Ph.D. student Fang Zhang, who is vice president of the GSA and helped launch the Graduate Ambassadors program this semester, hopes to see the volunteer day become an annual or even semi-annual event.

“When you’re pursuing an advanced degree, you’re not just doing it for the degree. I think you’re doing it for the betterment of mankind,” said Zhang, a native of Beijing who earned a master’s in chemistry from the Kennedy College of Sciences in 2015. “So this is a very direct action for us to show our gratefulness for the local community.”

Grad student Mark-Henry Kamga helps raise a bike he found Image by Ed Brennen
Ph.D. student Mark-Henry Kamga, left, helps remove an abandoned bicycle he found along the banks of the Merrimack River.

Paridhi Saxena, a master’s student in computer engineering from India, is one of 10 Graduate Ambassadors this year. Open to full-time graduate students from any discipline, the program’s Graduate Ambassadors assist at university events, answer questions about student life and support the Office of Graduate Admissions in outreach to new and continuing students.

As she filled a heavy-duty trash bag with scraps of paper and plastic along the Merrimack, Saxena reflected on the importance of bringing graduate students together for a common cause.

“Undergraduate students have a wonderful campus life here, but most graduate students come for class and then go away,” she said. “That’s why we came up with the Graduate Ambassadors, so we can bring graduate people together and let them get to know each other.”

Fellow Graduate Ambassador Sri Kuppa, a master’s student in computer science from India, said she was motivated to help the community.

“As an international student, I wanted to give something back to this country that has welcomed me for some time,” she said.

Grad students organize the kitchen at the LTLC Image by Ed Brennen
Graduate student Erica Lancaster, right, helps organize and clean the kitchen at the Lowell Transitional Living Center.

Over at the Lowell Transitional Living Center, Erica Lancaster helped organize pots and pans and scrub walls in the kitchen from which meals are provided to the city’s homeless. As a master’s student in public health, she said the experience gave her new insight into her field.

“I really wanted to give back and see another side of public health, instead of just in the classroom,” said Lancaster, a native of Haverhill. “It’s good to see how many people they house here, how long they stay here, what kind of health care they have access to and what resources they are using.”

Djeneba Kassambara, a native of Mali who is pursuing her master’s in applied math, had been looking for a volunteer opportunity in Lowell, but “since I’m new here, I didn’t know where to go.” When she learned she could lend a hand for a few hours on a Saturday morning with fellow graduate students, she jumped at the chance.

“In my opinion, this could be any one of us,” Kassambara said as she looked out at the LTLC’s busy dining room at lunch time. “It’s good to give each other hope and support each other.”