By Katharine Webster
The River Hawk Scholars Academy, a nationally recognized program that serves first-generation college students at UMass Lowell, got a $500,000 boost from the federal government to expand its services, thanks to U.S. Rep. Lori Trahan and U.S. Sen. Edward Markey.
The pair came to campus to announce the federal Community Project Funding, alongside UMass President Marty Meehan and UML Chancellor Jacquie Moloney. All four were first-generation college students themselves, as are 41% of UML students today, and Meehan and Moloney both graduated from UMass Lowell.
“With this funding, we will be able to take this program to even more students,” Moloney said. “This is the greatest way for us to achieve social justice and social mobility – through education.”
Markey, who grew up in Malden, Massachusetts, commuted to Boston College, where he said he felt far less confident than his classmates who lived on campus and whose parents had college degrees.
“Congresswoman Trahan and I believe in this program because we were first-generation ourselves,” Markey said.
“All the young people who get admitted to UMass Lowell have the capacity to be whoever they want to be,” but they may need extra help to get there, he said. “It’s not a question of ability; it’s a question of opportunity.”
Trahan said she had read the biographies of some of the first-generation students present at the gathering, and she was impressed with their perseverance, hard work and determination.
“This is an important day and an important investment,” she said. “You all are the future of our country, and I feel like we are in good hands.”
Also at the announcement were state Rep. Thomas Golden Jr. '93, '01 and Boys & Girls Club of Greater Lowell Executive Director Joe Hungler, who wrote letters to Trahan to support the funding request, and state Reps. Rady Mom and Vanna Howard. Golden is also the incoming city manager of Lowell.
English Assoc. Teaching Prof. Matthew Hurwitz, who directs the River Hawk Scholars Academy (RHSA), said the money will enable the scale-up of recent pilot programs, including the First to Launch! experience for incoming first-year students, which includes a scholarship to take one summer class for free; expansion of the RHSA to include sophomores, starting this fall; and career and graduate school readiness programming for juniors and seniors.
The RHSA also hopes to create a Center for First-Generation Student Success in a central location on campus and to hire a “success coach” to work one-on-one with students to help them meet their academic, personal, social and career goals, he said.
Financial support is critical to leveling the playing field for first-generation college students, who are more likely than their continuing-generation peers to come from low-income families and to work long hours at outside jobs, Hurwitz said.
For that reason, much of the new funding will go directly to scholarships for River Hawk Scholars to do research with faculty, take advantage of internships or leadership opportunities related to their career goals, and even study abroad, he said.
“We want to get students from underrepresented populations more engaged in these opportunities,” he said. “As this program continues to evolve, we want to consider not just tuition scholarships, but even a stipend for our most financially needy students so they can work a little less.”
The RHSA was piloted in fall 2017 as a program for first-year students coming from college access programs, as well as some others who wanted assistance with navigating the transition to college. Nearly all were first-generation students, and in its second year, the RHSA decided to focus exclusively on that group.
Using a peer mentoring model, the RHSA quickly expanded. It has now served about 1,200 students, who have the same rates of academic success on average as continuing-generation students, as well as higher GPAs and persistence rates than their first-generation peers who aren’t in the program.
That has won the program national recognition as a First-Gen Forward Advisory Institution, as well as two $100,000 grants from the Cummings Foundation and Bank of America to pilot new initiatives.
RHSA peer and team leaders credit the program’s success not only to the practical skills and advice it offers, but also to the fact that it’s a mutually supportive community that fosters the sense that first-generation students belong at the university.
Nicole Estrada Rosario, a senior English major and an RHSA team leader who mentors peer leaders as well as first-year River Hawk Scholars, told the assembled dignitaries that when she was accepted at UMass Lowell and then asked to join the RHSA, she wasn’t sure what it was. “I was thinking, like, ‘I got invited to a really cool club?’” she joked.
She accepted – and she stayed because of the connections she formed with students, faculty and staff who cared about her and each other.
“Community is the difference between feeling alone and feeling empowered,” she said. “It’s about building a community that can last beyond your years here.”
Kiara Vasquez, a senior business major and Honors College student who is the senior team leader for the RHSA this year, said that many first-generation students are caretakers within their families or work full-time jobs, and that can lead to negative perceptions about their academic abilities.
The RHSA, she said, provides the financial, practical and emotional support to recognize and tap into the assets and aspirations that first-generation students bring, which are crucial to the upward mobility they’re trying to achieve for themselves and their families.
“There’s so much strength and pride that comes with that identity,” she said.
Junior political science major Neyder Fernandez says that leadership opportunities he got through the RHSA, starting with being trained as a peer leader, started him thinking about what else he could do to make things better for first-generation students.
Now, Fernandez is president of the Student Government Association (SGA) for the second year in a row, and he and his SGA executive board have recruited the most diverse student Senate in the SGA’s history – including 60% first-generation students, he said.
“The RHSA is the pathway to becoming the next generation of leaders,” he said. “Here at UMass Lowell, we always listen to students, and the voices that (usually) aren’t heard are at the table.”