Starting the Honors Ambassador Program

In the first year of the Honors Ambassador Program, we’ve been asked “why are you doing this?” quite a bit from students, faculty, and administration. We recite for them some reasons– “we love it here”, “we want to show people what we have here”, etc., but it’s interesting how so many people follow up by asking what our real motive is. The mindset that every difficult and time-consuming endeavor is rooted in a resume building, a drive for power, or just sheer boredom is heavily engrained in the minds of people associated with University education.

So why’d we do it? This is the story of how Meghan Burke, Scott Ankiewicz, Alyssa Piper, and I built the Honors Ambassador Program.

Well it turns out that a good portion of the honors students at UMass Lowell (especially those in science/engineering/business) seriously considered attending WPI, Northeastern, or a similar-caliber private school before eventually choosing UML for the value. Many of them were less than thrilled with that choice and would readily admit it. The funny thing, however, is that most of these students began to strongly stand by their choice of UML within their first year– so what was going on?

UMass Lowell, as a public state University, doesn’t carry quite the name recognition as the majority of Massachusetts private schools, so many top-tier students simply use it as their safety. But then they get the offer, which often comes with honors distinction and generous merit-based financial aid. That prompts them to do a bit of research, where they find out that UMass Lowell (for less than half the cost) produces graduates with a better average mid-career salary than Northeastern and Boston University (to name a few in the area). Then when their curiosity is piqued, they’re told that UMass Lowell has poured over $400 million into capital improvements in the last 5 years, is the second-fastest rising school on the U.S. News and World Report rankings, is rated the #1 most underrated school in the U.S. by Business Insider, is doing industry-leading world-class research, and quite a bit more. In summary, when high school seniors take the time to really research the school, they realize it’s a no-brainer.

This story was compelling for the four of us, because it’s exactly the process we went through.

We had come to love Honors and it’s courses, community, collaboration, and support and we needed to do a better job communicating that. At a dinner with Chancellor Meehan we discussed how to reach more of these types of students and we established that the UML Honors Program was the vehicle that would get them here. We also knew that these particular prospective students needed to talk to current students to get them engaged– to get them to initiate the research. We wanted to show people everything we had found here and bring them on board, saving them a few bucks along the way.

So we began recruiting. We talked to our most driven current honors students, many of which had applied to UMass Lowell as a safety. We held a rigorous and selective application process. The leading question was always “what happens if you take the University’s most intelligent, most driven, most creative, most innovative students and you get them together and give them complete freedom to carry out a shared vision?” The question was really interesting to think about.

We got some truly amazing applications and put together a group that gelled better than any I’ve ever seen. We began putting together what we called the “Welcome Day After Party for Honors”. It was a student-to-student event meant to connect our current students (and now Honors Ambassadors) to top-tier, somewhat-interested prospective students.

Word of our activity got out, and naturally we heard quite a bit of “no”. And to be entirely honest, I don’t blame anyone in administration who heard “a few students want to invite the entire prospective honors class and act as official representatives of the University” and felt a little apprehensive. Image counts for a lot, and the idea of students potentially butchering that was not particularly attractive to many people who work year in and out on admissions events.

Nevertheless, through all of the negativity and several threats of being shut down, the Honors Ambassador Program held the first annual Welcome Day After Party for Honors. 600 people attended and filled Cumnock Hall with overwhelming enthusiasm. Our ambassadors were stellar, fostering quality discussion with prospective students. Jim Canning and Greg DeLaurier answered a tsunami of questions from parents in Alumni Hall. We raffled off an iPad, Nexus 7, and tons of school merchandise. And within one week after the event, administration asked us to do another one in 2014. They’ve since named us a top-tier organization whose quality is sufficiently high enough to represent the University in various official programs. This year, we welcomed the largest Freshman honors population UMass Lowell has ever seen, a class that beat the previous ones by more than double.

We’ve gone on to have a phenomenal first year with many successful programs and we’ll be welcoming our second class of students on January 1, 2014.

We still ask that question– what happens if you take these types of students, get them together and give them complete freedom to carry out a shared vision? What can a group like this do to attract top-tier students and give them a great experience? So far, we’ve done that through recruiting events, mentoring programs, innovative courses and conferences, and more.  We’ve got big plans for this coming year and now that more people are buying in, we’re in a better position than ever.