Honors College student Kelsey Gonzalez struggled to find the right major as a first-year, first-generation college student.
She started out in biology, and then tried a business class. After her first year, an advisor suggested she switch to public health.
But Gonzalez remained unsure whether she’d made the right choice. So she decided she had to find something she was passionate about – and do it. That something was study abroad.
Her parents were concerned about whether she could stay on track with her studies. But Gonzalez was determined. Finally, her parents said that if she could earn the money to pay for it herself, she could go.
She did, and she spent fall semester 2019 studying at Universidad Católica de Valencia in Spain. She even found two internships: one in a hospital maternity ward and the other as a volunteer health educator for an organization that helps refugees.
Thanks to those experiences, she finally saw what she could do with her new major: focus on prevention, instead of treating people once they’re sick.
“I watched mothers give birth, assisted surgeons during procedures, administered shots and IVs, and educated patients,” she says. “I got to see the differences between the American health care system and the Spanish health care system. I 100% fell in love with the major.”
Every other weekend, Gonzalez traveled to a different part of Europe, too. She blogged about her experiences for UML’s Office of International Experiences and Study Abroad, as a global ambassador.
Now she recommends the “life-changing experience” of study abroad to all of her friends.
“It puts your life into perspective and grounds you in what’s really important in your life, and what isn’t,” she says.
She returned to UMass Lowell fired up to make a difference on campus, especially for first-generation students like herself. She found that the university already had a support organization for first-generation students: the River Hawk Scholars Academy (RHSA). But the RHSA was only for first-year students.
So Gonzalez decided to start a chapter of the national, first-generation honors society Alpha Alpha Alpha (Tri-Alpha), which would be open to upper-class students. She enlisted Assoc. Dean of Health Sciences Nicole Champagne to help, and recruited RHSA director and Assoc. Prof. Matthew Hurwitz and Jen Keene-Crouse, assistant director of college-based advising and a first-gen graduate herself, as advisors.
More than 180 students applied to join, and in November 2020, Tri-Alpha inducted its first 129 members during First-Generation Student Week. Gonzalez, the honor society’s inaugural president, and the other students on the executive board immediately began planning a spring semester full of workshops for the society’s members on résumé-writing, graduate school and mental health.
For her Honors College capstone, Gonzalez is planning a mental health campaign aimed at students from immigrant families and their parents.
“A lot of immigrants don’t believe that mental health is actually a thing, and students struggle with this because their parents don’t understand,” says Gonzalez, whose parents are from Guatemala. “This is something that I’ve struggled with myself.”
Gonzalez is glad that she came to UMass Lowell, even though she chose it only because it was the most affordable option among the colleges that accepted her. She didn’t even visit the campus until Orientation.
“I took a leap of faith with UMass Lowell, but I wouldn’t change it for anything,” she says. “I can’t imagine myself at a different school. The faculty, the staff, the resources, my friends, the River Hawk spirit and the people I’ve met along the way have truly shaped me into the person I am today.”