When she came to UMass Lowell as a transfer student from Middlesex Community College, Nicole Cruz Merced was so shy and uncertain that she was afraid to ask for help.

A native of Caguas, Puerto Rico, she was a first-generation college student. And most of her fellow psychology majors seemed really smart, while she sometimes struggled to understand complex research because Spanish is her first language.

“I was afraid to reach out because I didn’t want people to think I was dumb,” Cruz Merced says. 

But when she did, her whole life and career trajectory changed. A community activist and volunteer all through high school in Lawrence, Mass., she stumbled into a course in community psychology with Asst. Prof. Christopher Allen. And she loved it.

“That whole semester, I remember looking at him and thinking, ‘Wow! He’s doing research in really cool things that I want to study: sexism, gender, masculinity and how all that plays out in communities of color,’” she says. 

“I thought, ‘I want to be just like him,’ so I got over my shyness for a minute. I was nervous, but I made an effort to go to his office and ask him questions about how he got to where he got and what grad school was like.”

Allen’s class reawakened her passion for community organizing, advocacy and social justice, and Cruz Merced decided to apply to graduate schools in Puerto Rico, where the academic study of community social psychology originated.

Because of Hurricane Maria, Cruz Merced was unable to return to Puerto Rico. But she found out she didn’t need to: Allen told her she could study community social psychology right at UMass Lowell.

Cruz Merced didn’t think she would get into the graduate program, but Allen encouraged her to apply and wrote her a recommendation. And she was accepted.

Once again, she rose above her fears, with help from the faculty.

“I was so scared going into grad school because I was around these elite people,” she says. “Reading a complicated article could take me a whole day due to my language barrier, but I had really supportive professors who didn’t make me feel bad for not getting things right away. That really helped me grow into myself.”

And she excelled at the practice of community social psychology. She was awarded a graduate student fellowship to serve as graduate resident educator for two residence halls, where she reached out to students flagged by professors or staff as “at risk” and supervised the programming put on by undergraduate residence advisors. 

She also served on the Diversity and Inclusion Committee within Residence Life and facilitated an affinity group for resident advisors of color.

“My first year of grad school was a big year for me. I was exposed to so many professional development opportunities,” she says. “I found myself as a student in undergrad; I found myself as a professional in grad school.”

For her master’s degree practicum, she worked with THRIVE Communities in Lowell, which offers one-on-one support to people who have served time in prison and need help reintegrating into the community. Cruz Merced put together a wealth of information on support services.

Her efforts on- and off-campus were recognized with this year’s Chancellor’s Medal for Diversity and Inclusion and the Psychology Department’s Community Social Psychology Graduate Student Campus Leadership Award.

Cruz Merced plans to apply to Ph.D. programs in either community or counseling psychology once universities adjust to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the meantime, she’s interviewing for jobs with nonprofits so that she can continue being an advocate for underserved people and groups.

“Having that one person, Christopher Allen, changed my entire life and my career. I want to be that one person for my community,” she says.