Largest-ever Incoming Class Helps UML Kick Off 125th Anniversary Celebration

Two students smile for the camera at Convocation Image by Tory Wesnofske
Two of the nearly 3,400 new River Hawks smile for the camera during Convocation at the Tsongas Center.

By Ed Brennen

After a whirlwind weekend getting settled on campus, the university’s largest-ever incoming class – nearly 3,400 strong – took a collective deep breath at Convocation 2019.

The freshmen and new transfer students actually took several deep breaths as keynote speaker Pierce Freelon, an Emmy Award-winning producer and director, led them through a meditative exercise on overcoming adversity and achieving goals.

“There are going to be things that might throw you off course,” Freelon told students, a sea of blue in their Convocation T-shirts during the morning ceremony at the Tsongas Center. “For me, it’s really important to stop and breathe and remind myself of what my intentions are so I can stay that course.”

Pierce Freelon addresses students at Convocation Image by Tory Wesnofske
Convocation speaker Pierce Freelon shares with students his tools for "making something so" by speaking intentions into existence.

Convocation marked the beginning of a journey for the Class of 2023 – and also the start of the university’s yearlong 125th anniversary celebration. Founded in 1894, UML has grown to become a top-tier public research institution with an enrollment topping 18,000 students, a 57 percent increase from 2007.

“You have come to UMass Lowell at a very special time in our institution’s history,” Chancellor Jacquie Moloney ’75, ’92 said in welcoming the new River Hawks to campus. “As you go through your first year, you will see pictures of students from our early days, students who, like you, came to the university probably a little anxious about their future.”

Moloney, a double River Hawk who begins her fifth year as leader of her alma mater, told students that she was once in their shoes. She assured the newcomers that the university’s “fierce” commitment to diversity and inclusion, along with the dedicated support of faculty and staff, will help them find their voice.

“We will be here for you, to support you and to help you, so that when Commencement day comes, you will be sitting in this very same arena, proud as can be,” Moloney said.

Rowdy waves a UML flag on the Convocation stage Image by Tory Wesnofske
Rowdy helps gets the freshmen and new transfer students revved up at Convocation.

Hailing from 31 states and 27 countries, this is the university’s most diverse incoming class ever, Moloney noted. It is also the most academically prepared; the Class of 2023 has the highest average high-school GPA of any incoming group.

Student Government Association President David Morton, a senior business administration major from Boxford who works for UML’s Emergency Medical Services, challenged students to step out of their comfort zone and seize as many opportunities as they can while in college.

“Why do you think we’ve been around for 125 years?” Morton mused. “Because each year, a new group of students like yourselves enters those doors and offers something unique, something that helps push us forward.”

While UML is celebrating its “quasquicentennial,” the Convocation tradition is relatively new, starting 14 years ago at Durgin Hall. This year’s ceremony was the first to be presided over by Joseph Hartman, who became provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs in June after seven years as dean of the Francis College of Engineering.

A student holds up his Convocation T-shirt in the stands Image by Tory Wesnofske
Students turned the Tsongas Center stands into a sea of blue in their Convocation T-shirts.

As bleary-eyed students, many of whom attended “UCrossing After Dark” just a few hours earlier, filed into the Tsongas Center, the UMass Lowell Marching Band warmed up the crowd with a Beatles medley, opening with “Magical Mystery Tour.” The band later introduced students to UML’s fight song, “River Hawk Pride.”

Manning School of Business alum and “New Hampshire Idol” winner Nicole Hayek ’19 also performed her original song “We’ll Explore.”

The ceremony included a welcome from Lowell Mayor William Samaras and a presentation of the colors by the UMass Lowell Air Force and Army ROTC units.

Student-Athlete Advisory Committee President Abigail Drezek, a junior exercise physiology major from Cumberland, R.I., and a defender on the women’s soccer team, encouraged students to become involved in the community.

Alum Nicole Hayek performs for the crowd Image by Tory Wesnofske
UML alum Nicole Hayek performs her original song 'We'll Explore' as part of the Convocation ceremony.

Andrea Miles, a senior business administration major from Venezuela and transfer student from Middlesex Community College, shared how she’s been able to grow both personally and professionally at UML thanks to supportive faculty and internship opportunities.

“UMass Lowell is my home far away from home,” Miles said. “And I’m happy to call the UMass Lowell community my family.”

The morning was capped by a pitch contest between three student teams from the Rist DifferenceMaker Institute, a campuswide program that engages students in creative problem solving, innovation and entrepreneurship. Voting by text on their phones, students awarded the $1,500 top prize to “CAT Mat,” a physical therapy project led by graduate students Michelle Mailloux and Katherine Muise.

Freelon, who merges the worlds of art and activism in his work, is co-founder of the Beat Making Lab, an award-winning PBS web series that brings mobile music studios to communities around the world.

DifferenceMaker winners accept their first place check Image by Tory Wesnofske
Graduate students Michelle Mailloux and Katherine Muise, right, accept their first-prize check after winning the DifferenceMaker pitch contest.

As part of the deep breathing exercise, Freelon shared three tools that he uses to “manifest things” in his life. First, he asked students to think of an intention that they want to set and to “speak it into existence” while exhaling. The second step, he told students, is to follow their internal compass. The final step is simply to “make it so.”

For Safad Khalifeh, a freshman biology major from Atlanta, Freelon’s breathing exercise was just what she needed.

“I was really anxious about starting school, so just seeing how a lot of people were in the same boat helped me feel more relaxed,” said Khalifeh, whose father Nasser earned a degree in radiological sciences from UML in 1991. “Now I’m more excited than anxious.”

Junhong Zeng, a freshman business administration major from China, took notes on his phone to help remember the speakers’ words of wisdom, including Freelon’s line that “words create worlds.”

UML Marching Band members play at Convocation Image by Tory Wesnofske
The UML Marching Band warmed up the Convocation crowd with a Beatles medley.

“I really liked that advice,” said Zeng, who was feeling a combination of nervousness and excitement as he started college in a new country and culture. “It’s like an adventure for me.”

Charlie Mahoney, a freshman undeclared liberal arts major from Wellesley, said the intention he stated in Freelon’s exercise was to meet as many people as possible.

“I’m trying to branch out, and I’ve done that so far,” he said.

Brittany Cullen, a freshman biology major and first-generation college student from Dracut, said her stated intention was to go to medical school and become a surgeon.

“I feel pretty good,” Cullen said as she and several friends departed the Tsongas Center and headed to the Engagement Fair on the back lawn. “I’m ready.”