James Nehring Rows 500 Miles for First-Generation Education Students
By Katharine Webster
Education Prof. and Faculty Chair James Nehring was gazing out of his office window on a sunny day five summers ago when he saw people rowing on the Merrimack River below. He thought it looked like fun.
So he signed up to take sculling lessons at the university’s Bellegarde Boathouse. He found that he greatly enjoyed the serenity of being on the water, finding a rhythm, and watching the birds that flocked to the river’s banks and fished from its shoals.
And he had an inspiration.
“I was really energized by the scholarship fundraiser and bike ride I finished in 2011, and then I thought, ‘Hey – maybe I could create another epic adventure and raise more money,’” he says.
A decade ago, Nehring completed the final stage of a three-year bicycle odyssey – 4,000 miles, from Boston to Seattle – to raise $30,000 for a scholarship to benefit first-generation UMass Lowell students studying to be teachers. Since then, the Mary, Joan and Nancy Scholarship for Courage and Compassion fund has grown to $40,000, enough to award $1,500 to one senior education student each year.
“UMass Lowell is historically an engine of economic and social uplift, especially for first-generation college students,” he says. “So many come from immigrant families, and those first-gen students who go on to become teachers will bring deep understanding and compassion to their students who also come from immigrant families or other marginalized groups.”
Nehring wanted to double the amount of the annual scholarship to $3,000 by raising an additional $40,000 for the fund. And he saw a way to do that by rowing, if he could just get an expedition wherry: a light, open boat that is similar to a rowing scull, but wider and more stable, able to handle waves of 3 to 4 feet, and with storage compartments for gear.
He quickly learned that the boats cost upwards of $8,000, so his wife suggested that he build his own. He ordered a kit online and spent the winter of 2017 assembling the boat from wood and fiberglass in the garage. He christened the craft Merrily, for the nursery rhyme “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” and the Merrimack River.
That first, 130-mile stage included an 18-mile portage in northern New Jersey, to avoid rowing in the open ocean. He balanced Merrily, packed with all of his gear – 150 pounds in total – on a small axle with two wheels and pulled it along the New Jersey boardwalk. Vendors and tourists stared at him, encouraged him and cheered him on.
“I got numerous offers of free ice cream and ice water, which I happily received,” he says.
In 2019, he rowed all of Chesapeake Bay from Charlestown, Maryland, to Kiptopeke, Virginia: 225 miles of islands, wildlife and gorgeous scenery, plus some additional challenges.
“Once or twice a day, I’d have to do a crossing and go out into more open water,” he says. “If there was a squall, I would have to rely on my wits to keep the boat from capsizing, and on 3- to 4-foot swells, it can be tricky. On other days the challenge is boredom, and it’s just me doing 17 strokes a minute for hours on end.”
That kind of patience and persistence is what he was paying tribute to when he named the scholarship fund for his mother, Mary Nehring, his mother-in-law, Joan Sutherland, and Nancy Sizer, a good friend. Each had cared for her husband during a prolonged, terminal illness.
“I wanted to honor them,” he says. “I was deeply moved by the courage and compassion these women showed. They faced each day with good cheer, and each helped her life’s partner live as well as he could to the very end of his days.”
So far, he’s raised nearly $6,000 from family, friends, and university leaders and colleagues. Now, he’s making a broader appeal for donations so he can meet his fundraising and rowing goals together. Thanks to an anonymous donor who has offered $20,000 in matching funds, Nehring only needs to raise another $14,000 from individual donors, who can contribute through the university’s fundraising site.
Education major Joyce Vega, this year’s recipient of the Mary, Joan and Nancy Scholarship for Courage and Compassion, says she’s “super grateful” to Nehring for the scholarship – especially since she’s a senior who is student teaching full time and can’t work in her other job, at a day care center.
“Scholarships make it easier for me to focus on my actual education,” she says. “It’s really provided me with mental sanity. I’m able to focus on one thing and really put my energy into it.”