Joyce Vega came to UMass Lowell as an exercise science major, with plans to become a physical therapist or occupational therapist.
She did an internship at Children’s Hospital in Boston – and really liked it. But what she enjoyed the most, she realized, was working with children.
At the same time, she loved her job at a day care center in Boston, where she grew up. She worked there the summer after she graduated high school, and stayed on for most of college.
“I was expecting to need more time to complete my degree, but I took some summer classes, and I was always one of those students who took more credits than recommended, so I was used to that workload,” she says.
Still, she stressed about finances. UMass Lowell offered her the best financial aid package of any school she applied to, and her family helped with tuition, but Vega still needed to pay for textbooks and personal expenses, so she was commuting from campus back to Boston two or three days a week to work.
Then, Vega’s counselor at Bottom Line, a college access program, showed her how to use the UMass Lowell scholarship portal to search for scholarships. Vega applied for several – and got them. That allowed her to scale back her hours at work.
“I’m super grateful for the scholarships I was able to find,” she says. “My scholarships made it easier for me to focus on my education. They really provided me with mental sanity.”
Vega received four scholarships her senior year, including the Mary, Joan and Nancy Scholarship for Courage and Compassion, established by College of Education Faculty Chair James Nehring for a senior education major who is a first-generation college student.
Those senior year scholarships were even more crucial, Vega says, because she was student teaching five days a week in her final semester: first, for her certification in K-6 education, and then for her certification in teaching students with mild to moderate disabilities.
A special education class introduced her to Lowell’s Laura Lee Therapeutic Day School, which serves children with multiple or intensive special needs. As a student teacher, she also got the chance to work with a special education teacher at the Murkland School, an “inclusive” school in Lowell where children with individual education plans are in regular classrooms as much as possible, and only pulled out for extra help with reading and math.
“The teacher I’m working with now, she does two different content areas in two different grades. I like that challenge,” Vega says. “I’ve also made such good connections with the kids. Building a foundation of trust and understanding with the students and watching them grow – that’s amazing.”
Vega plans to go on for her master’s degree in special education, while working as a paraprofessional at the Murkland School. She hopes to teach in a similar inclusive school once she is licensed as a special education teacher.