By Ed Brennen
When most high school students think about college and how they’ll pay for their education, they usually talk to their parents, visit their guidance counselor and maybe do some research online.
A pair of Lowell Catholic High School students, Bridget Provost and Daniel Russell, decided to take things straight to the top, however, by inviting UMass President Marty Meehan into the conversation.
UMass Lowell’s former chancellor returned to his hometown campus recently to discuss the power of education and the importance of college affordability at an event called “Lessons in Leadership with Marty Meehan.” It was hosted by Leaders in Lowell, a nonprofit speaker series Provost and Russell founded as high school freshmen in 2017 as a way to educate and connect the “next generation of leaders” with their community.
“The student leaders were very impressive. You’d never know they are still in high school,” Meehan said of Provost and Russell, who moderated the discussion, which drew close to 100 UMass Lowell students and community members to the Saab ETIC Perry Atrium. “They came prepared with thoughtful questions about important topics that are relevant now — and to their future.”
The discussion, which was supported by the Manning School of Business and the Greater Lowell Community Foundation, also featured Distinguished Professor of Higher Education, Emerging Technologies and Innovation Jack Wilson and Senior Vice Chancellor for Finance, Operations and Strategic Planning Joanne Yestramski.
The panelists touched on a variety of ways that UML and the UMass system are working to keep a high-quality education financially accessible to all.
“I believe passionately that education is the great equalizer that makes this country great,” said Meehan, who shared his journey as a first-generation college student who worked as a janitor to pay his way through school as an undergrad before going on to serve in the U.S. Congress, as head of UMass Lowell and then president of the UMass system. “Anything that I’ve achieved in life, I believe, at its core is because of the high-quality education I got here at Lowell.”
Faced with a long-term decline in state funding, Meehan said it’s “critically important that we find ways to make college education more affordable.” One way, he said, is by working closely with community colleges to make it “as seamless as possible” for students to transfer to a UMass school after earning their associate’s degree. Universities also must be more entrepreneurial in developing online programs for those looking to complete a degree, as well as certificate and graduate programs.
“UMass Lowell is a prototype for collaboration with business and industry,” said Meehan, who noted that over the last five years UML students have earned nearly $25 million from co-op positions. “I’m a big believer in experiential learning opportunities like co-ops, which is another way to reduce debt that students may have.”
Craig Williams, a sophomore business administration major with a concentration in finance, appreciated hearing how Meehan is trying to keep his education affordable.
“He’s only one person, but he does a lot,” said Williams, an Honors College student from Cambridge. “If I put myself in Marty’s shoes, what he’s done is incredible.”
Isabella Perez, a sophomore criminal justice major from Boston, was impressed that the event was hosted by high school juniors barely old enough to drive.
“They came here to a college campus to advocate for us, so it’s nice to support them,” Perez said. “They did a great job.”
Earlier this year, Provost and Russell visited the White House (by invitation of Vice President Mike Pence) to discuss youth leadership. They said they’ve been invited to return in January.
“They’ll reach out to anyone. They’re not afraid to fail,” said Kevin Willett, an adjunct faculty member in the Manning School who mentors the students and connected them to the university for the event.
“We were really excited when we heard President Meehan would participate,” said Russell, a Dracut resident. “I think it went better than expected.”
“Our goal is to not only educate and inspire, but to connect leaders from around the city,” added Provost, a North Andover native.
While both students still have time to think about their college paths, Meehan said he was delighted to have them visit his alma mater.
“Anytime you get high school students on to a university campus, that’s a good thing,” Meehan said. “Not everyone gets to see the quality of our buildings and our faculty, so being on campus makes all the difference in the world.”