An Honors College student fellowship allowed nursing student Marbella Leal to do what she loves most: serve as a mentor to a pair of Lowell High School students.
“I actually love mentoring students, tutoring them and helping them out with advice on how to cope with stress and get involved at school,” she says. 
But first, Leal found a mentor herself in Assoc. Teaching Prof. Susan Thomson Tripathy, when she took Tripathy’s honors service-learning class, Seminar on Homelessness: Lowell and Mumbai.
As part of the class, Leal volunteered at the Lowell Transitional Living Center, a shelter for homeless adults. Soon, she was working beyond the required hours, helping out in the kitchen on Saturdays and assisting at the weekly clinic, when health care workers came to treat residents.
Because Leal wanted to continue learning from Tripathy, she applied for and won a $1,000 fellowship to work on a different project: the P.A.L.S. program, which matches UML students as mentors to students at Lowell High School who are considered “at-risk” academically, emotionally or socially.
Over the summer, Tripathy and Leal worked with high school social worker Carla Correa to identify Lowell High students to invite, came up with a plan to recruit UML student mentors and planned a semester’s worth of activities, including movie nights, bowling and career events.
Then, during the fall, they did research – a fantastic experience for Leal, who had taken a nursing and health care research course and now had a chance to apply her classroom learning. She and Tripathy designed a survey and ran a focus group to determine whether the P.A.L.S. program boosted the Lowell High students’ confidence levels, their motivation in school and their ability to cope with social or family stress.
“In the beginning, it was tough just getting the students to show up once a week – we had to hold a lot of raffles just to get them to come,” Leal says. “But in the focus group at the end, almost every student said they enjoyed doing it and wanted to continue.”
As she had in Tripathy’s class on homelessness, Leal went above and beyond, meeting her mentees for coffee outside of the weekly program time and helping to arrange a tour of UMass Lowell and a free dining hall meal with some of the other P.A.L.S. participants.
It all paid off when one of Leal’s mentees texted her to say that she’d gotten her first college acceptance. Now Leal plans to work in nursing for a few years and then earn a master’s degree so that she can teach in a nursing program.
“Being able to work with a mentee, an at-risk student, I felt like I made a difference in their life, even if it was a small one,” Leal says. “The most important thing I learned is that the students really appreciate everything you do for them, even if they don’t always show it.”