Graduating River Hawks Unlock Potential, Pursue Dreams Far From Washington, D.C.

A dozen young men and women pose for a group photo in front of a blue UMass Lowell backdrop Image by courtesy
Members of UMass Lowell's first cohort of DC-CAP Scholars pose for a photo with former program coordinator Francine Coston, back row left, during a recent ceremony in their honor at Coburn Hall.

By Ed Brennen

Being a pioneer takes courage, which makes achieving the goal even more gratifying.
For 10 Washington, D.C., natives about to graduate from UMass Lowell, the moment is about more than receiving a college degree. It’s about becoming the first members of an innovative partnership between UML and the nonprofit District of Columbia College Access Program (DC-CAP) to complete their journey — and a chance to appreciate the trail they’ve blazed for others.
“I wouldn’t have been able to accomplish what I have achieved and learned without the DC-CAP program. It’s something I’ll always be thankful for,” says civil engineering major Edgardo Paz, a first-generation college student who is about to begin his construction management career with Whiting-Turner Contracting back home in the nation’s capital. 
In 2019, Paz was among 20 high school seniors from Washington to receive DC-CAP’s first University Partnership Scholarship, guaranteeing them a full ride — tuition, room and board — at UMass Lowell for up to five years. 
The DC-CAP partnership with UML grew out of a friendship between former state Sen. Steven Panagiotakos of Lowell, a major booster of the university, and Ted Leonsis, managing partner of Monumental Sports & Entertainment, which owns the NHL’s Washington Capitals and the NBA’s Washington Wizards. Leonsis, who is chairman of DC-CAP’s board, grew up in Lowell and attended what was then Lowell State for two years before transferring to Georgetown University.
A young woman gestures with her hand while talking to a young man Image by Lisett Cordoba Pren
Senior business major Kayla Rowles chats with a fellow DC-CAP Scholar during a recent event at Coburn Hall that brought together all four cohorts of the program.
Of the original 20 students, 10 are graduating this spring: Paz, Elena Encarnacion Abad (business), Steve Espinoza Diaz (physics), Maria Gorfu (public health), Arjinae Jones (business), Adner Madrid (chemical engineering), Lisett Cordoba Pren (graphic design), Tiana Robinson (civil engineering and business), Kayla Rowles (business) and Annikki Williams (biology).
Nine others — Kevin Akers, Amirah Mimiko, Tyson Minor, NaDoan Nguyen, Jae’la Rowles, Jaden Smith, Yessica Roa Uribe, Onyinyechukwu Chisom Ukaegbu and Davette Williams — are expected to complete their degrees in the coming year, with some delaying graduation because of co-op opportunities.
Following UML’s lead, 13 other colleges now partner with the University Partnership Scholarship program, providing more than 500 students with over $4 million in awards over the past four years. UML has enrolled 55 of those scholars, with a fifth cohort starting this fall.
For members of UML’s first cohort, it was daunting to attend college 450 miles from home in a completely unfamiliar place, let alone pilot a new program. But the opportunity to go to college for free outweighed any nerves.
“Receiving the full scholarship has been the key to unlocking my potential and pursuing my dreams,” says Gorfu, an Honors College student who is graduating with a perfect 4.0 GPA and starting a patient data analytics internship at George Washington University Hospital this summer. “I never imagined that I would be graduating with honors from a university in Massachusetts. Knowing that there were individuals who believed in me and supported me financially has been a tremendous source of motivation.”
Being part of a community of students from Washington was a helpful tonic for any bouts of homesickness.
A young woman holds a certificate while posing for a photo with two other women Image by courtesy
Graduating DC-CAP Scholar Lisett Cordoba-Pren, center, accepts a certificate from Asst. Director of Multicultural Affairs Ilse Bellido Richards, left, and Francine Coston, former program coordinator.
“Knowing other people who are feeling and experiencing the same things you are is important — especially in our case, because we are so far from home,” says Williams, who will always remember her DC-CAP friends throwing a surprise birthday party for her during her first year on campus. They continued the tradition each February 20th and this year arranged for a surprise visit from Williams’ mom, Nichola, and her brother, Allee. 
“DC-CAP has given us the feeling of family and made UMass Lowell our home away from home,” says Williams, who is continuing at UML for a master’s degree in public health.
Kayla Rowles, an honors student who is continuing at UML for an MBA, will never forget riding out her first major snowstorm with DC-CAP friends following winter break her first year. 
“We all planned to stay in my room at University Suites and get snowed in together. We watched movies and ate popcorn,” says Rowles, whose twin sister, Jae’la, is also a DC-CAP Scholar. “The next day, we ventured outside to go to the dining hall. That was probably one of the biggest snowstorms I’ve seen.”
In addition to being enrolled in the River Hawk Scholars Academy, a supportive community for first-generation students, the DC-CAP Scholars meet once a month for a “Saturday Academy,” where they can talk about their experiences and learn strategies for time management, study skills, job searching and more from invited guests.
Francine Coston, who served as UML’s DC-CAP program coordinator until last year, says students “were not feeling the Saturday meetings at first” but eventually grew to appreciate them — especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, when everyone moved home and learned remotely.
A man in an orange construction vest gestures while talking to three students on the roof of a building Image by Ed Brennen
Senior civil engineering major and DC-CAP Scholar Edgardo Paz, second from left, visits the Lowell High School renovation project with his Construction Management course, taught by alum Rex Radloff '09, '11, left.
“The fact that they remained resilient and were able to accomplish what they did, I’m just so proud of them,” says Coston, who is now associate director of K-12 early college initiatives. “They’re a great group of kids, truly humble, and they recognize this opportunity that has been given to them.”
Asst. Director of Multicultural Affairs Ilse Bellido Richards ’19 now manages the DC-CAP program. In April, she and many of the current DC-CAP Scholars hosted 17 high school seniors from Washington who are considering coming to UML on the University Partnership Scholarship next fall. The weekend included a banquet to celebrate members of the inaugural graduating class.
“The program changed my life in a lot of ways,” Gorfu says. “I had always planned to stay in the D.C. area, but moving far from home changed my perspective. I feel like I’ve grown a lot personally.”
Paz, who says he would have gone to trade school had it not been for DC-CAP, will never forget calling his mom, Angelina, to tell her he had won the scholarship. He remembers it felt bittersweet because he wanted to stay close to his mom, who had raised him and his older sister on her own.
“But she understood it was for a good cause and, at the end of the day, everything was going to pay off,” says Paz, who ended up receiving three job offers.
He expects to be filled with emotion when he walks across the Tsongas Center stage at Commencement to receive his degree — with his mom looking on from the crowd.
“I already told my mom that I’m going to cry,” Paz says. “This is a dream for our family, and I’m going to be the first one to accomplish this dream.”
Spoken like a true pioneer.