New Dean Jenifer Whitten-Woodring Shares Vision for Growing College

Four people smile while posing for a photo outside of a brick building Image by Ed Brennen
Honors College Dean Jenifer Whitten-Woodring, left, and staff members Rae Mansfield, Megan Hadley and Erin Maitland have moved to Allen House on South Campus.

By Ed Brennen

The third floor of O’Leary Library is a perfectly nice place, but it’s not the most visible spot on campus.

So when Honors College Dean Jenifer Whitten-Woodring was given the opportunity to relocate the growing college from O’Leary to Allen House — one of the most prominent locations at UMass Lowell — she started packing.

“It’s important to have an Honors College that's visible, that shows the commitment that UMass Lowell has to high-achieving students,” Whitten-Woodring said while giving a tour of the college’s new home at Allen House, which was built in 1854 and is on the National Register of Historic Places. “Having a building like this makes the honors students feel like they are special to the university, and I think that’s really important.”

An associate professor of political science who joined UML in 2010, Whitten-Woodring was officially named Honors College dean last spring. She had served in an interim role since 2020, following the retirement of the college’s founding dean, Jim Canning.

Whitten-Woodring helms an Honors College that has grown steadily since joining the statewide Commonwealth Honors Program with 298 students in 2008. Enrollment is approaching 2,000 for the second consecutive year, with 1,987 undergraduates from just about every academic program enrolled this fall — including more than 600 first-year and transfer students.

Whitten-Woodring sat down recently in her new office, where she was still unpacking boxes, to discuss her goals as dean, new initiatives like “Honor Yourself Week,” and her vision for the Allen House, where they will host a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Sept. 9.

Two seated people and two standing people talk to each other in a sitting room Image by Ed Brennen
Honors College Dean Jenifer Whitten-Woodring, right, chats with staff members in a first-floor lounge at Allen House.

Q: What does being dean of the Honors College mean to you?

A: I've always loved working with students on research, which is how I became involved with the Honors College. When I was asked to step in as interim dean, I really liked it more than I thought I would. It’s like a dream job for me, because now I get to work with students on research even more. As director of the Global Studies Doctoral Program, and through my work with the Emerging Scholars Program and the Launch@UML program for new faculty, I have always found that bringing faculty and students together around research and creative projects is really fun. That's something I want to do more of, and this is a good opportunity for that.

Q: Last year, the college introduced a faculty lecture series to the First Year Seminar in Honors (FYSH). Are there more changes in store this year?

A: We decided to mix it up and make it an interview this year. So I'm going to go back to my journalism days and, along with Erin Maitland (assistant director of community building and honors transfer coordinator), we are going to interview faculty about their work, whether it's creative or research, and ask them to share advice with honors students about how to get the most out of their undergraduate experience. And then we’ll use the second half of the class for “Designing Your Life.”

Q: What is that?

A: Rae Mansfield (associate director of honors scholarship and curriculum) has been teaching a successful “Designing Your Life” course — an approach developed by the Design Lab at Stanford University — for juniors and seniors who are trying to figure out what they want to do. We’re bringing the approach to the First Year Seminar in Honors, but more as “Designing Your UML Experience,” to encourage students to take more agency over their own experience here at the university. You have all these opportunities in college, so it's up to you to decide which ones you want to do. Do you want to study abroad? Do you want to do a fellowship? We’re trying to get students used to the idea of charting their own path.

Four people pose for a photo while standing next to furniture in a room Image by Ed Brennen
In addition to staff offices, the second floor of the Honors College's new home at Allen House includes hangout and study space for students.

Q: A new “Honor Yourself Week” is scheduled for the week of Oct. 17. Can you explain what that is and why it’s important?

A: We’re going to have a series of wellness events that week in partnership with UMatter2 to help make students more aware of the many resources we have here at the university. We’re going to ask all faculty teaching honors courses to incorporate wellness into the curriculum. The First Year Seminar’s common lecture that week will be introducing the eight dimensions of wellness, and students will be encouraged to design their own wellness plan. And it’s not just for honors students: We’re inviting all students, faculty and staff at UML to join us for these events. In talking with some other leaders of honors colleges and programs, I became very aware of the immense pressures that our students put on themselves. Obviously, this is a tremendous problem for all college students, but I do think the push to perfection is exacerbated for honors students.

Q: One of new Chancellor Julie Chen’s goals is to elevate UML from an R2 to R1 research university in the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education. How does the Honors College align with that goal?

A: People may not automatically think about an Honors College when they think about R1, because they're thinking about, well, Ph.D. students and research grants. But incorporating undergraduate students into faculty research and research in general is important, because it gives our students an incredible benefit. I also think it's a benefit to faculty. On days when I'm bogged down with administrative things that I have to do, having a student or a former student who's working with me on research reminds me that yes, I need to do this, or I'll let that student down. It's great for keeping faculty on task and on mission.

Q: What do students gain by being in the Honors College?

A: It’s an extra layer of support, smaller classes and the opportunity for students to take their college experience to a deeper — and broader — level. They can go really deep within their major and engage in their own research, or they can explore an interest that has nothing to do with their major. It's for students who are academically inclined, but also interested in a little bit more intellectual exploration. If they are working on an engineering degree but they really like Spanish literature, they can explore that in the Honors College. It gives them the encouragement and support that they need to do that.

Q: Finally, how do you envision honors students using the new space at Allen House?

A: I want the Allen House to become a hub for interdisciplinary research and collaboration, and for discussion around current events. We will have some teach-ins, the Honors Symposiums (Sept. 30, Oct. 28 and Nov. 18), informational sessions about study abroad, about the honors project and honors thesis, and networking receptions for faculty and students. But we will also have a lot of fun, smaller events — Monday Morning Munchies, board games. We’re creating nooks for students for reading and studying, and we will provide coffee, tea and hot chocolate. Students can use it for whatever they want. We want it to be their home away from home.