125 Faces of UMass Lowell

Nursing Graduate, Nutritional Sciences Professor and Theater Company Founder are Honorees

Members of the UMass Lowell Gospel Choir performed at the annual MLK awards dinner Image by Tory Wesnofske
Members of the UMass Lowell Gospel Choir performed at the 9th annual MLK Week dinner.

By Katharine Webster

A service-learning class put honors nursing student Marbella Leal ’19 on the path of community service.

The honors seminar, Homelessness: Lowell and Mumbai, taught by Assoc. Teaching Prof. Susan Thomson Tripathy in sociology, requires students to volunteer at one of three Lowell nonprofits that serves homeless people.

Leal volunteered at the Center for Transitional Living, assisting with a weekly medical clinic. She also worked in the kitchen, going beyond her required hours to spend time helping out wherever she was needed.

Honors nursing major Marbella Leal '19 won the student MLK Distinguished Service Award Image by K. Webster
Honors nursing major Marbella Leal '19 won the Dr. Martin Luther King Distinguished Service Award in the student category.

Because Leal wanted to keep working with Tripathy, she next got involved with the PALS program at Lowell High School, working with students at risk of dropping out. Again, she went above and beyond, often meeting students outside of the school program for coffee and a heart-to-heart.

“I felt like I made a difference in their life, even if it was a small one,” Leal said.

Then, Leal returned to Lowell Transitional Living Center for her honors capstone project, working with Nursing Assoc. Prof. Margaret Knight and shelter residents to create a workshop and educational brochure about intimate partner violence, which is strongly associated with homelessness.

On Tuesday night, Leal – who graduated in December – won the university’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Distinguished Student Service Award. She was nominated by Tripathy.

UML business major Luis Enrique Diaz was the featured student speaker at the 2020 MLK awards ceremony Image by Tory Wesnofske
Business student Luis Enrique Diaz, a first-generation college student and the son of immigrants, was the featured student speaker.

“From the start, I appreciated Marbella's sensitivity, strong commitment to social justice and willingness to go outside her comfort zone,” Tripathy said. “She has shown tremendous initiative, innovation and passion for providing useful assistance.”

Leal was one of three service award winners to be honored at the ninth annual celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and legacy. This year’s theme was "All Labor has Dignity: Celebrating 125 Years of Labor and History at UMass Lowell."

The program featured two short talks by faculty: one by History Prof. Robert Forrant on King’s support for labor rights as integral to civil rights, and the other by Assoc. Prof. of Art History Marie Frank on milestones for diversity at the university.

Students Fiona Bruce Baiden, Mariah Brown and Elizabeth Antuna created a multimedia project, 125 Faces of UMass Lowell, to celebrate the university's 125th anniversary Image by Tory Wesnofske
Fiona Bruce Baiden, Mariah Brown and Elizabeth Antuna, from left, created a multimedia project, 125 Faces of UMass Lowell.

The featured student speaker, Luis Enrique Diaz, talked about how his education here transformed him from “a shy and reserved kid” into a student leader with the Money Management Mentors and Hawkapella.

“A lot of people saw my potential – me, the son of two immigrants who are now proud citizens of the U.S.,” the business major said. “I didn’t give up hope, and here I am. Hopes and dreams are everything to a first-generation college student like me.”

The program also featured the debut of a multimedia work celebrating the university’s 125th anniversary that was created by three student workers in the Office of Multicultural Affairs: Elizabeth Antuna, Mariah Brown and Fiona Bruce Baiden. “125 Faces of UMass Lowell” consists of 125 portraits of students, which were displayed as a slide show. The students also unveiled a “125” collage they had made of all the faces.

UML director of Community Relations Patty Coffey, left, nominated Christa Brown for the MLK Distinguished Service Award. Brown is founder of the Free Soil Arts Collective and also works at Entrepreneurship for All Image by Tory Wesnofske
Christa Brown, founder of the Free Soil Arts Collective theater company, received the community award. She was nominated by Patricia Coffey, left, director of Community Relations.

The dignity of labor theme was exemplified by the community winner of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Distinguished Service Award. Christa Brown is the founder and executive director of the Free Soil Arts Collective, a Lowell-based theater group that provides opportunities for people of color to share their own stories and experiences on the stage.

Most recently, Brown has been working with students at the Collegiate Charter School of Lowell to create an original performance that will debut this February for Black History Month.

Brown is also the marketing manager for Entrepreneurship for All (EforAll), a Lowell nonprofit that supports and promotes entrepreneurial ventures by people in under-served groups. Brown was nominated by Patty Coffey, UML’s director of community relations.

The third award, which recognizes a faculty or staff member whose career exemplifies community service, went to Sabrina Noel, an assistant professor of biomedical and nutritional sciences.

UML Asst. Prof. Sabrina Noel in biomedical and nutritional sciences won a 2020 MLK Jr. award for community service Image by Tory Wesnofske
Biomedical and Nutritional Sciences Asst. Prof. Sabrina Noel received the faculty-staff award for her community-engaged research.

Noel was nominated by Prof. Katherine Tucker and Asst. Prof. Kelsey Mangano for her community-based, participatory research on diet and disease. Her groundbreaking study of Hispanic adults in the Boston area showed that they experience chronic disease and nutritional deficiencies “at astonishingly high rates compared to other ethnic groups” because of a lack of access to healthy food, medical care and education, Tucker and Mangano said.

Noel has also studied the relationship between the health of first- and second-generation Cambodian immigrants and the availability of their preferred traditional foods at local stores and farmers’ markets. And she has been instrumental in advancing the age-friendly community initiative in Lawrence, which aims to help seniors live longer, healthier lives in the community.

In every case, Noel works with local organizations and community leaders to diagnose problems and create positive health interventions, all while training her students and other researchers in community-based approaches, Tucker and Mangano said.

“Sabrina meets with her community partners on a regular basis to involve them in the science behind the research ideas,” they said. “Her dedication to creating healthier and safer communities … has inspired and changed the way our research team tackles human research.”