Today’s Lowell doesn’t look like the same place where Colleen Winn ’85 grew up. And UMass Lowell isn’t the same university from which she graduated with a B.A. in English.
But Winn sees the bedrock similarities under the surface changes: Lowell is still a city of immigrants who want better lives for their children and UMass Lowell is still the university that helps many of those children succeed, just like it helped her.
Today Winn serves as a bridge between past and present, city and university. As director of the state and federal Gear Up and TRIO programs for Lowell, she helps low-income, first-generation middle and high school students prepare for college. “I’m working with students because my parents fomented not only this love of helping others, but also the idea of education being a cornerstone for opportunities,” she says.
Winn worked in retail and pharmacy management while earning an M.A. in English at Rivier University, with dreams of being a reporter. But she found herself helping the sales clerks who worked for her at Brooks Pharmacy in Lawrence—mostly young Puerto Rican women—apply to college. She thought, “I’m good at this!” and went back to Rivier for a second master’s in education with a concentration in guidance counseling.
A lifelong learner, Winn is now pursuing her doctorate in education, with a focus on the achievement gap. Research shows that the students she serves today face tougher challenges than her generation did, including poverty, trauma, language and cultural barriers, and the high cost of college, she says.
Julie Lun ’18 is one example. Lun’s mother got little schooling after her family fled the killing fields of Cambodia and spent 10 years in a Thai refugee camp. In the United States, she struggled to learn English and find work. Starting at age 12, Lun had to babysit her younger siblings while her parents worked second shift. Still, she persevered in her schoolwork, with support from Winn and the Gear Up counselors at Lowell High School. “Gear Up made me focus on my education, to want to better myself despite my situation at home,” Lun says.
Lun took four classes at Middlesex Community College her senior year of high school and then matriculated at UMass Lowell with a generous financial aid package that included scholarships, work-study jobs and campus housing. She’s on track to graduate next year with a criminal justice degree—and she just might take over Winn’s job one day. “I want to advocate for Gear Up, or maybe work with young people who are at risk of not going to college or finishing high school,” she says. “You can be different than your circumstances. You can be a leader. You can change things.”
Alumna Helps Students 'Gear Up' - UMass Lowell Magazine