By Ed Brennen
It was 2 a.m. in South Korea when an email with the subject line “Important Message” landed in Chantay Sewell’s inbox.
Sewell, a Mount Ida College junior who was studying abroad for the spring semester, awoke for class in the morning and read the message from her school’s president. It said Mount Ida, a small liberal arts school founded in Newton in 1899, would be closing following the spring 2018 semester – in just over a month.
“Uh, this is a joke,” thought Sewell. But it was true. Faced with mounting debt and waning enrollment, Mount Ida was joining a growing list of liberal arts colleges across the country that have recently been forced to close or merge with other institutions.
Mount Ida’s 1,164 freshmen, sophomores and juniors suddenly had to scramble to find other schools to attend. For those on campus, figuring out how and where to transfer was stressful and confusing. For Sewell, who was halfway around the world for another two months, it seemed impossible.
“Everything was happening quickly,” recalls Sewell, a criminal justice major from Hyde Park. “I called my mom and said, ‘I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. I’m not there. I can’t go look at colleges.’”
With her mom’s help, Sewell ended up transferring to UMass Lowell along with 32 other Mount Ida students. Among them were two of Sewell's closest friends, fellow criminal justice majors Nicole Morales-Taveras and Jessica D’Esposito.
Now, one tumultuous year later, the three young women are graduating – on time – with their bachelor’s degrees from the College of Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences.
“It was definitely tough while we were going through it, but we found a way to continue our education and we are graduating, so we can take that as a win.”
-Mount Ida transfer Nicole Morales-Taveras
“It was definitely tough while we were going through it, but we found a way to continue our education and we are graduating, so we can take that as a win,” says Morales-Taveras, a Lawrence native who plans to move to New York after Commencement to work for a nonprofit focused on juvenile justice reform. “Through UMass Lowell, we could do that.”
There were a few other silver linings.
“It’s better getting a degree from UMass Lowell than it would have been from Mount Ida,” says D’Esposito, a Malden native who is continuing her studies at UML, going for her master’s degree online in criminal justice. “It’s a good school.”
“I like how the professors here have a wide variety of experience,” adds Sewell, who plans to work in the field of animal control. “You have researchers and a lot of different perspectives, which is interesting.”
Transfer students make up about half of the university’s undergraduate population; the majority come from two-year community colleges or as veteran and military applicants. Increasingly, however, the Transfer Admissions office is working with students in need of a life raft after their schools go under.
Since 2016, two dozen liberal arts colleges across the country have either closed or consolidated. Just this year alone, four schools in New England have announced that they’re closing: Newbury College, Green Mountain College, Southern Vermont College and College of St. Joseph. The New Hampshire Institute of Art, meanwhile, is merging with New England College, and Hampshire College is looking to merge with another institution.
“It’s sad. You feel for the students who took the time to research the school and thought they made the right decision,” says Gerald Durkin, associate dean of enrollment and director of transfer admissions. “Fortunately, there are a lot of schools out there giving students new opportunities.”
That includes the schools in the UMass system, which hosted an informational transfer day in the aftermath of Mount Ida’s closure announcement. Representatives from the Lowell, Amherst, Dartmouth and Boston campuses were on hand to answer questions about academic programs, financial aid, housing and student life.
Sewell was able to attend the event remotely from South Korea thanks to her mom, Paulette, who had her on FaceTime on her iPad.
“Thank God for my mom,” Sewell says. “She had to take time out of work to go to these things. My mom did everything for me.”
“Her mother did a great job for her,” Durkin recalls. “That was pretty neat.”
D’Esposito, meanwhile, knew exactly where she wanted to transfer. The day after receiving the fateful email from Mount Ida, she visited the UML campus.
“I called my mom and said, ‘If I go to any other school, it’s going to be UMass Lowell because it’s closest to home,’” D’Esposito says. “I wanted to be near my family.”
To help all the Mount Ida transfers get situated on their new campus, the university hosted a special early registration day, at which members of the Tau Sigma Transfer Honor Society gave tours and faculty advisors answered questions.
“We let them know the resources are here,” Durkin says. “We don’t want them floating around and not getting the necessary help. They’ve been through enough.”
Transferring to a new school as seniors wasn’t easy for Morales-Taveras, Sewell and D’Esposito. They had created so many memories and friendships in their three years on the tight-knit Mount Ida campus, and now they felt like freshmen all over again. Besides worrying about transferring credits so they could graduate on time, they had to get to know new faculty and advisors. Even basics like the Student Information System (SiS) and Blackboard were foreign.
“It’s different if you’re coming in as a sophomore or junior than it is as a senior,” says D’Esposito, who could compare her experience to that of her roommate at the UMass Lowell Inn & Conference Center, who was a transfer from Middlesex Community College.
Even though they were only River Hawks for one year, the students found ways to get involved. Morales-Taveras worked 16 hours a week as a building manager at University Crossing (in addition to a part-time job off campus). Sewell joined the Steppin’ in Unity club, an activity she’d never tried before.
And they also belonged to an exclusive support group: each other.
“When I get down, I have no problem calling Chantay or Nicole and being like, ‘Yo, can you make me happy again?’ And they’re like, ‘We got you girl!’” D’Esposito says. “They’re the only two that know how I’m feeling. And that’s the one thing we’ll always have in common – our feelings about this whole experience.”
“We came here expecting to have the same family we had beforehand, but we don’t have that anymore,” Morales-Taveras adds. “But we’re happy to be together and happy to be graduating. You’re going to see us on Commencement Day. We’re here. We made it. Now let’s go.”