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How UMass Lowell Supports First-Generation College Students

By August 16, 2019

By Dr. Matthew Hurwitz, Director of the River Hawk Scholars Academy at UMass Lowell

Every college student has a story to share. Each and every one has their own story about what lead them to choose to go to college in the first place, to choose going to this one specific college, to choose this specific major. And although each students’ story is unique, for many, they share one trait in common that can make or break their ability to complete their degree.

According to the Center for First-Generation Student Success, this fall, 33% of incoming first-year students will be the first one in their family to earn a four-year college degree. Even though each of their stories might differ, a robust body of research and data demonstrates that because they are first-gen students and often don’t have an authority figure in their home who is literate in “university-ese,” they are less likely to persist and graduate. And they deserve better than that.

First-generation students are often our most motivated students. All of us working in higher education can make a direct impact on how well they succeed at our institutions. Their stories are often ones of determination and struggle, of sacrifice and self-empowerment, and we owe them – like we owe all our students – our best. The question is: how do we deliver our best?

Creating Opportunities in Every Direction, for Every Student

That’s where my work with the River Hawk Scholars Academy comes in.

When students are accepted to attend the University of Massachusetts Lowell, a mid-sized public university in the heart of the culturally-rich city where the American Industrial Revolution was born, they are also invited to join the River Hawk Scholars Academy. The Academy, named after our River Hawk mascot, is a support program for first-year, first-generation college students that focuses on their academic and personal success. As the faculty director of this program, I get to hear the stories of how these incredible students ended up in one of our six colleges, to learn of the great diversity of experiences, identities, perspectives, and attitudes that they collectively bring to our bustling campus.

River Hawk Scholars Academy students
River Hawk Scholars Academy students

Success for these students can look like many things, and ultimately it is the student as much as the school who gets to say what that success looks like and what it means. For us at UMass Lowell, we see their learning as the core of that success. Students learn about their subject of study – be it Engineering, English, or Earth Sciences – but they also learn about what it takes to be a successful college student. And when I envision what this learning looks like and how the Academy serves to enhance that learning, I see a space of potential extending outward on two planes: the horizontal and the vertical.

The learning the Academy supports is horizontal, in that it extends outward to enrich students’ lived experience of our campus and their on-the-ground learning happening each and every day in the classroom and through co-curricular programming.

It’s also vertical, in that it extends into the future, connecting all of their semesters and experiences into a whole. That vertical learning stretches far beyond the time they cross the stage at graduation, beaming with pride and hoisting that diploma above their heads. It extends through their career, their lives as citizens, their personal interests and adventures as lifelong learners.

We practice what we preach here at UMass Lowell by helping our students understand how to extend their own learning and how to live a life filled with growth and curiosity while also focusing on supporting them in the moment and creating varied, hands-on learning that puts their questions and needs at the heart of the academic and social experiences of college.  Students who are first-gen are especially well-placed to benefit from this kind of horizontal and vertical learning to improve not just their lives and their ability to persist to graduation but to improve the lives of their families, their neighborhoods, and their communities.

UMass Lowell faculty and staff with students from the River Hawk Scholars Academy
UMass Lowell faculty and staff with students from the River Hawk Scholars Academy

All of this work is complicated and requires technology and data management systems, without which the River Hawk Scholars Academy simply could not do half of what we do. If we want the Academy to support learning on the horizontal and the vertical, we need help. And so this is where Salesforce enters the equation.

The River Hawk Scholars Academy takes full advantage of the many ways that UMass Lowell uses Education Cloud to manage our admissions process, track student engagement, integrate communication among various key student services, run re-enrollment campaigns, and advise students (particularly through the use of the Salesforce Advisor Link).  Indeed, UMass Lowell was recognized in 2018 with the Salesforce Excellence in Student Success Award. Because the Academy’s mission is to view each student as a whole person, to enhance their knowledge of how to be a college student and therefore to help them navigate the complexities of higher education, we rely on technology to make this vision a reality. It’s the technology that lets us best see the person within the data and to focus our attention where it’s needed most: on each individual student sitting across from us, looking for answers.

The River Hawk Scholars Academy has grown tremendously in three years, from 95 students in year one to over 400 coming into the program this fall. This past spring, UMass Lowell and the Academy were honored by being named a First Forward institute, a designation for colleges and universities offering the most strategic and sustainable first-gen supports. This kind of growth and success simply would not be possible without our partnership with Salesforce.

Over 400 students will be joining the River Hawk Scholars Academy this fall
Over 400 students will be joining the River Hawk Scholars Academy this fall

What this ultimately means is that we are able to leverage the power of Salesforce and of the River Hawk Scholars Academy so that first-gen students at UMass Lowell can write the next powerful part of their success story. 

They deserve nothing less.

Follow the River Hawk Scholars Academy on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram: @umlrhsa

Make sure to register for the Future of Higher Education webinar where we’ll be taking a close look at how lifelong learning and workforce development are shaping the future of higher ed. 


About the author

Dr. Matthew Hurwitz

Dr. Matthew Hurwitz is the director for UMass Lowell’s first-generation college student academic support program, River Hawk Scholars Academy, and a faculty member in English. His mission with the Academy is to make evidence-based decisions about interventions for first-gen students that are supported by robust research and that will make a real difference in the lives of students.