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Students in the RHSA bonded over lunch at the dining commons in Fox Hall.
September 8, 2018

UMass Lowell first-generation college students get a helping hand

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  • Lowell
River Hawk Scholars Academy welcomes 250 first-year students

It takes a special kind of courage to be the first in your family to pursue a college degree. 

It takes even more nerve to attend a college far from home – like first-year student Jaya Sims of Milwaukee, Wis., who turned down offers from Midwestern universities to pursue a sociology degree at UMass Lowell.

A major factor in her choice? The River Hawk Scholars Academy, or RHSA, which provides extra help and a caring community for first-generation college students. 

“I wanted the extra support network, especially since it’s so far from home,” Sims says. “I liked the feel of this campus when I visited. Everyone was really nice and made me feel like they wanted me here.”

Sims is among hundreds of first-generation college students in this fall’s first-year class. All earned their places here through a combination of strong grades, test scores and extracurricular activities. In fact, many had such high GPAs and test scores that they were automatically invited to join the Honors College.

But while they are well-prepared academically, first-generation college students often struggle with financial aid, course selection and time management because they can’t turn to family members who’ve been through the college experience.

That’s where the River Hawk Scholars Academy comes in. The RHSA has its own academic advisor, Racheal Shertzer – and once students have met with her to make sure they’re on track for all their requirements, they will get priority registration for their spring and fall 2019 courses. 

Academy scholars who complete a summer program can move into their dorms early, including the affiliated Explore Living-Learning Community in Fox Hall. After they move in, they get a special, one-day boot camp to learn about strategies and resources for college success, including the Centers for Learning and Academic Support Services (C.L.A.S.S.), the Solution Center and the Wellness Center.

Some of the students will study together in RHSA sections of College Writing I and II. They can even apply for dedicated RHSA scholarships. And all year long, they will be invited to social events, volunteer opportunities, talks and workshops to help them adjust to the expectations and challenges of a college education.

“First-generation college students bring so many wonderful abilities, strengths and perspectives to campus, so we want to make sure that they’re getting the support they need to navigate campus culture,” says Matthew Hurwitz, RHSA director and an assistant teaching professor in the English Department.

“The history of this university is intertwined with the history of first-generation students, and we don’t want to lose sight of that,” Hurwitz says. “The River Hawk Scholars Academy is a recognition that this should remain an important and visible part of our institution’s mission.”

The River Hawk Scholars Academy debuted as a pilot project a year ago under the leadership of Provost Michael Vayda – a first-generation college graduate himself – and Vice Provost for Student Success Julie Nash. Any student who wanted extra support was invited to join, and nearly 100 did.

Starting this year, the provost’s office decided to focus the academy primarily on first-generation students in the College of Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, the Manning School of Business, the Kennedy College of Sciences and the College of Education. 

The academy has also formed special partnerships with the GEAR UP and TRIO programs for low-income and first-generation students at Lowell and Lawrence high schools. All the students in those programs who won admission to UML – 53 from Lowell and 21 from Lawrence – were invited to join the academy.

Altogether, 286 students were invited to join the RHSA this year, and about 250 accepted.

First-generation college students are more likely to come from low-income families and minority groups, Hurwitz says, and they’re also more likely to feel like they don’t belong in college. The River Hawk Scholars Academy aims to persuade them that they do.

At RHSA Welcome Day, Nash spoke to the scholars about “impostor syndrome” – the nagging feeling that you were admitted by mistake, that you’re not as smart as everyone else and that if you ask questions, everyone will realize you’re a fraud. It’s not true, she said.

“If you say ‘Yes’ to opportunities and you say, ‘I belong here,’ I guarantee you’re going to have an awesome year,” she said. “And if you learn nothing else, learn how to ask for help.”

Sophomore math major Marie Bernier, a graduate of last year’s RHSA who is serving as a peer mentor for this year’s cohort, agrees that asking for help is critical. A first-generation college student, Bernier struggled last year, especially with applying for and getting financial aid. 

She succeeded because she asked questions of everyone she knew: her friend’s older sister, upperclass friends on the Steppin’ in Unity dance team and Shertzer, the RHSA advisor.

“Because I’m first-generation, my parents don’t understand paying for college or signing up for classes or moving in,” she says. “Racheal (Shertzer) basically become my best friend. She put me in touch with a financial aid counselor, and they helped me out. My mom and I are very much grateful for that, because every second, my mom was asking me, ‘How are we going to pay for it?’”

Although she has “graduated” from the RHSA, which is for first-year students, Bernier says she still feels comfortable asking Shertzer for advice. 

She can also seek ongoing support through the River Hawk Rising Scholars program offered by the Office of Multicultural Affairs, which helps students in all four years develop their goals, stay on track with their majors, find internships and co-ops and prepare for careers or graduate school.

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