First-Year Health Majors Forge Friendships and Build Community

Lawreta Kankan with counselors Danny Tran, Keanna Bouthsarath and Sierra Goodwin
Public Health Advisor Lawreta Kankam with counselors Danny Tran, Keanna Bouthsarath and Sierra Goodwin.

By Karen Angelo

In the middle of sixth grade, Danny Tran and his family moved from Randolph, Massachusetts, to Norton, Massachusetts. Although his new home was just 20 miles south, Tran felt like it was a world away. 

“It meant leaving the people I grew up with,” says Tran, a sophomore majoring in public health. “We left all the diversity, all the memories, everything. During middle and high school, I struggled the most in my life.” 

Then he came to UMass Lowell. 

Last fall, Tran signed up for a pilot program designed to give incoming students a boost heading into their first semester. First-year students arrive on campus a week before classes start for social activities, community service and educational and cultural activities to help them get acclimated to campus and the city of Lowell. 

The experience changed Tran’s life. 

“This program helped me find my people,” he says. “I found my best friends, the ones who have my back. We take similar classes, study together and are growing together.” 

Building on the success of last year’s pilot initiative, the Zuckerberg: Ready, Set, Go! program hosted 20 health sciences majors this fall semester. Tran returned this year, working as a counselor to help new students break out of their comfort zones. 

“I genuinely loved talking to the students and making sure they had fun,” says Tran. “I was able to answer their questions about classes, student life and the best resources for studying.” 

The Ready, Set, Go! Program is the latest Zuckerberg College of Health Sciences initiative designed to help students succeed by building a sense of belonging and community. Another annual event is Fall Fest on South Campus, where students learn about clubs, play games and interact with other students. All college majors also have access to the Health Sciences Hub, a dedicated space where they meet with advisors, get tutoring help, gather with club members and study using the anatomy models. 

“Learning is social,” says Assoc. Dean Nicole Champagne. “Our students prove over and over that strong connections support academic success, and the Ready, Set, Go! program is one piece of that puzzle.” 

Offered at no cost to students, the program included a Lowell walking tour, a visit to the Public Health Museum in Tewksbury, Massachusetts, a scavenger hunt on campus to identify resources and a morning of bowling and arcade games at Bowlero in Lowell. 

“By experiencing Lowell and surrounding communities early in their academic careers, students get a head start as they explore career paths, seek internships and discover cultural and fun activities,” says Anne Apigian, who works with Zuckerberg College students on clinical placements and success initiatives. She collaborated with Lawreta Kankam ’22, an academic advisor for the Public Health program and a Master of Public Health student, to organize the events. 

Nursing major Eve Patterson credits the program with helping her feel more at ease as she starts her first semester. 

“Going into freshman year was definitely overwhelming, but being part of this program helped me adjust before everyone was on campus,” says Patterson. “I moved in early, built connections with other students and adapted to the college environment.” 

Matthew Vallejos serves food to people who face homelessness.
Exercise science freshman Matthew Vallejos served food to people who are homeless in Lawrence.
Several students reported that the most profound experience of the week was volunteering to help people who face homelessness. UMass Lowell partnered with The Movement Family, a nonprofit organization based in the Merrimack Valley that offers weekly dinners at the Buckley Transportation Center in Lawrence. 

“Helping people who are struggling gave me a sense of fulfillment,” says exercise science major Matthew Vallejos. “Overall, the Ready, Set, Go! program was a good program that I was grateful to be part of.” 

The students served food, chatted with people receiving meals, handed out clothes and donated items such as books and personal hygiene products.

“Helping with The Movement Family was truly a rewarding experience,” says Patterson. “I helped serve food and talked to various people. I felt that I was a part of a family, and everyone there was extremely grateful. I would love to volunteer with them in the future.” 

Public health major Jack Callahan, who was a counselor, was motivated to share his knowledge of the university and the city of Lowell with incoming students. 

“I have absolutely fallen in love with the city of Lowell and the community as a whole,” says Callahan, who is a sophomore. “The city has so much to offer and is welcoming. The downtown is full of beautiful architecture with a rich history, and the city is home to so many different cultures that have all made Lowell what it is today.” Although he still has three years to go before he graduates, Callahan is planning to stay in Lowell and establish his career. “Lowell is home to so many great community health initiatives, all aimed at solving health disparities and problems in the city,” he says. “The city has so much to offer and has some sort of charm about it that makes you want to stay here for the long run.”