Education Professor Hoping to Recruit More Diverse Students to Teach

UMass Lowell students Judgress Sylvestre and Shanna Chow work with children at the Coalition for a Better Acre after-school program Image by K. Webster
UML students Judress Sylvestre and Shanna Chow help middle-school students with their homework at the Coalition for a Better Acre.

By Katharine Webster

Sophomore Judress Sylvestre enjoys helping children with their homework and activities like games and art projects.

That’s because growing up in Haiti, he saw the devastating effects of poverty and a lack of good adult role models on many of his friends.

“I was going to a better school and I had a meal on the table – and they didn’t have those things,” he says. 

When Sylvestre’s family emigrated to the United States, he was fortunate enough to find caring teachers and mentors at Boston International High School’s Newcomers Academy. Now he’s returning the favor by working in the after-school program at the Coalition for a Better Acre (CBA).    

“I love taking care of kids. Children are a priority for me,” he said on a recent afternoon before assisting a middle-school student with her math homework. “I’m an adult now, and if adults aren’t taking care of them, children go from being a joy to be around to being a problem for our society.”

Sylvestre, who is pursuing his Bachelor of Liberal Arts, is part of a mentoring program started by Assoc. Prof. of EducationPhitsamay Uy. The program pairs UML students who are part of the first generation in their families to attend college with Lowell children and teenagers going to after-school programs at the CBA and the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association (CMAA).

Uy’s goal is twofold: help children in low-income Lowell neighborhoods believe that they, too, can go to and succeed in college, and inspire UML undergraduates to consider a career in teaching.

“My intention is to diversify UMass Lowell and, ideally, to diversify the teaching field,” says Uy, who is also co-director of the university’s Center for Asian American Studies.

College of Education Dean Eleanor Abrams helped Uy get financial support from Thomas Taylor, the university’s dean of enrollment and student success. 

Next, Uy recruited 10 first-generation UML students, mostly first-year students with some of them from her Introduction to Asian-American Studies class, to work in the program this semester. Each student is receiving a $1,000 stipend to work at least five hours a week at one of the sites. 

Uy and the UML students are bringing the CBA and CMAA children on field trips to campus once a month, too, so the kids will start to feel at home here. Those visits, coupled with role models who come from similar circumstances – the college students are mostly minorities or from immigrant families – can be key to helping the children see themselves as future college students, Uy says.

“Having a strong adult mentor – a teacher, a coach or a youth organization staff member – makes a real difference in children’s lives,” she says.

Jennifer Balala, co-director with Dolores Sierra of the after-school program at the CBA, says their goal is to provide children from the predominantly low-income Acre neighborhood with some of the same kinds of enrichment experiences that middle-class children get. 

Having two or three UML students on site every afternoon, Monday through Thursday, has been a boon for the growing after-school program, which serves 18 to 20 children, says Balala, a home-schooling mother who is a UML student herself through the Division of Online and Continuing Education.

UML student Sofya Chow works with children at the CBA's after-school program Image by K. Webster
UML student Sofya Chow works at the CBA's after-school program with her twin sister, Shanna.
“With more volunteers, we can develop really structured activities,” she says. “It’s been a blessing, because for a while it was just the two of us.”

Uy knows that the UML students need mentoring, too. She’s hosting an alumni panel so that they can meet recent graduates. She’s also helping them with their resumes and connecting them with other opportunities and mentors, both on campus and off.

She hopes some of the first-generation college students will enjoy the work so much that they will consider minoring in education or going to graduate school for teaching. 

Sylvestre, who is studying animation and psychology, says he would love to become a teacher. In the meantime, he says, mentoring the children inspires him to work hard and stay focused.

“I learn responsibility, I gain more confidence and I feel a sense of accomplishment,” he says.

Sofya Chow, a first-year computer science major, is coming to the CBA with her twin sister Shanna for the sheer pleasure of spending time with kids. Shanna Chow is in Uy’s Asian-American Studies class. The twins are first-generation college students.

“I want to mentor kids. I don’t have younger siblings, and I want to pass my knowledge along,” Sofya Chow says. “Plus, it’s really fun.”

Kevin Green, a junior computer science major, says working at the CBA is an enjoyable change of pace. Green isn’t a formal mentor: He’s volunteering for service-learning credit in Uy’s Intro to Asian-American Studies class.

“It’s good experience, and I thought I could help kids with their homework,” he says. “And it’s not the same as going to classes every day. It’s more exciting.”