Born in Boston, William Cole-French moved to Vietnam at age 3 when his parents took jobs as English professors at Hanoi University. He lived abroad for 10 years before moving back home to attend Boston College High School.
“I loved living in Vietnam,” says Cole-French, who experienced a reverse culture shock when visiting his home in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston every two or three years.
“Vietnam being a collectivist-minded society and America being an individualist-minded society, I could see those big differences when we would come back,” he says. “They place a lot more value on the respect of others in Vietnam. If you’re having a get-together, you invite everyone in the neighborhood, not just certain people.”
Cole-French says those ideals guided him through high school and into college at UMass Lowell, where he is majoring in psychology (with a minor in criminal justice) and is a distance runner on the River Hawks’ men’s cross country and track and field teams.
“My parents always believed that if you have the ability to help and serve people, you should do that,” he says.
With that in mind, Cole-French volunteers as a mentor for a local elementary school student through a program created by Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Lowell and the Lowell Public Schools.
“I remember the people who took the time to talk to me when I was in grade school. It made me feel like I was important; I felt recognized and seen,” he says. “Doing simple acts like that for kids can really go a long way.”
Matched with a second-grader from Murkland Elementary School in fall 2019, Cole-French hangs out with him once a week — initially in person and then later on Zoom during the pandemic.
“He’s big into hockey, so we talk about sports and things like (the video game) Fortnite, as most kids do,” says Cole-French, who received a Helping Hands Award from the America East Conference in spring 2021 for his efforts.
Cole-French says he chose to run at UML because he wanted to be on a team that was going to be competitive at the NCAA Division I level.
“One of Coach (Gary) Gardner’s big philosophies is that you need to grind to get better. ‘If you keep working, you can do this.’ That really drew me into the team,” he says. “We have a real brotherhood on the team. We celebrate wins together, and if someone’s having a tough time, we go pick them up. We ride as one.”
He also volunteers in Assoc. Prof. of Psychology Stephanie Block’s research lab, where he helps study the intricacies of child sexual abuse case reporting.
“That’s been a pretty good experience to see the applied side of research,” says Cole-French, who is keeping his options open on a future career path, including considering graduate school.
Balancing his academics with the pressures of being a Div. I athlete, Cole-French says volunteering as a mentor helps him keep things in perspective.
“As you get older, there’s more stressors in life like paying bills, keeping up good grades, making sure you’re ready for the next race,” he says. “By talking with someone who’s younger through the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, you’re reminded what really matters: relationships, being a good person and being kind.”