By Jennifer Myers
LOWELL -- Timothy Phamduy came to UMass Lowell in the fall of 2008 with a chip on his shoulder.
Closed-minded. Arrogant. Ignorant. Immature. That is how he describes his freshman self.
Phamduy was a straight-A student in high school and the success went to his head. He saw the students who did not perform as well as "bad people" he should avoid. And he did.
"I came to UMass Lowell with that mindset and, needless to say, I didn't make any friends," Phamduy, a UML senior studying biotechnology, told the crowd assembled in the Campus Recreation Center for the new student convocation yesterday morning.
He stepped back and realized it was due to his close-mindedness, arrogance, ignorance and immaturity. Opening himself up to the "bad people," he quickly discovered they were smart and fun and could teach him important things, like skateboard tricks.
"Now I am happy to call them my friends," Phamduy said. "Through my experiences at UMass Lowell, I have become more open-minded, friendly, aware and mature."
The 1,463 freshmen of the Class of 2015 listened as Chancellor Marty Meehan, Dean of Students Larry Siegel, Lowell Mayor James Milinazzo and Vernon Wall, director of educational programs and publications for the American College Personnel Association for College Student Educators International, provided words of welcome, encouragement and advice as they embark on the next chapter of their lives.
But it was the stories of their five contemporaries, students like Phamduy who had been where they were a short time ago, that resonated among the newest River Hawks.
They came from different backgrounds and carried different baggage: the loss of a parent, an absent father, depression and physical disability that made the prospect of going away to college daunting, but they all found a home at UMass Lowell.
Trudy Umstead, of Woburn, lost her father Kenneth, the man who had taught her "to read and succeed," to cancer on July 27, 2009, the summer before her senior year of high school.
"I put on my happy face and hid in my shell," recalled the fine-arts major.
She lacked motivation, couldn't sleep and watched as her grades plummeted.
In the fall of 2010 she arrived at UMass Lowell, not knowing what to expect.
"The support I have gotten at UMass Lowell has far surpassed any I had gotten at high school," Umstead said, adding that her freshman-year success has made her, her mother and she is sure, her father proud.
Siegel said the students, part of "In Your Company," a program centered around producing student autobiographical monologues "believe through the stories each of us tell, we can better connect, understand and appreciate each other."
The theme of this year's convocation was "one better world," something Siegel and Meehan said they are confident this class will be instrumental in creating.
Meehan said the Class of 2015 includes 200 fewer members than last year's class because the university made a conscious decision to admit fewer students to retain the 14-to-1 student to faculty ratio, the lowest across the UMass system.
Additionally, the average SAT score for this year's freshman class is 24 points higher than last year's, breaking the 1,100 threshold for the first time in the school's history.
"We know each and every one of you can succeed at this university," Meehan said, urging the new students to "get engaged" and take advantage of all the university has to offer.
Wall reminded students that "everybody on this campus matters," encouraging them to embrace their uniqueness, the special trait that is often marginalized.
Asking the students to partner up, he gave each student one minute to tell their partner a story about a time when they felt they were treated as "less than" because of who they were or are.
"If we all know that feeling, why are we not doing everything we can to make sure people around us don't feel what we felt when we were treated like that?" he asked. "Remember the feeling."