After Greg Alexander ’14 (anthropology/Native American studies), winner of this year’s Dean’s Merit Award, graduated from high school, he attended the University of Lowell briefly, until he discovered that the costs were beyond his ability to pay. “That’s why I enlisted in the Air Force Reserves, planning to return school after my stint using G.I. Bill benefits,” he recalls. “However, two months before my enlistment ended, an automobile accident left me with a traumatic brain injury and years of rehab and disability. During this period I attended Berkshire Community College (BCC), taking two or three courses at a time, and finally received an associate’s degree [with honors] in liberal arts in 2012.”
Alexander wasn’t certain which major to pursue for the bachelor’s degree at UMass Amherst until a BCC career services counselor guided him through some tests to match abilities and interests. Archaeology was a clear match. “I have always been interested in history, science, and philosophy, but learning about ancient civilizations has been most compelling,” he says. “As soon as I began taking courses at UMass I knew that this was where I was meant to be.”
Returning to college later in life has presented plenty of challenges. “I have two children to support while paying to live in Amherst and working part-time,” says Alexander, who has been on the Dean’s list each semester of his UMass career. “I have had to make many sacrifices to be a full-time student—at times it has been overwhelming—but earning my degree is important to me.”
Each weekend Alexander drives home to North Adams to see his children. “The cost of supporting them and gas expenses use up my paycheck,” he says. “Scholarships are critical for me to continue to succeed in my classes. They allow me to put more time into studying and learning, instead of earning money. The Dean’s Merit Award has made it possible to attend UMass for another year to complete my degree, and for that I’m truly grateful.”
Alexander has been very impressed with his professors who have guided his progress and made his transition to full-time student less stressful. “I love gaining a better grasp of how we, as human beings, have come to where we are today. Understanding our past may reveal something about our future.” Last semester he dove headfirst into a graduate level course, Indigenous Archaeologies, that “inspired me to attend graduate school and given me a focus for my thesis. The level of work and the dedication required pushed me to limits I wasn’t certain I could handle.”
The course required completion of three research projects. The first was about archaeological ethics and intellectual property in cultural heritage. The second dealt with NAGPRA and the repatriation of material culture and ancestral remains, and the third focused on indigenous archaeology case studies. All of the projects involved new forms of knowledge sharing using iMovie, YouTube videos, and Comic Life formats. “Now my confidence in my abilities and my understanding of research processes is much higher,” Alexander acknowledges
UMass offers many opportunities to learn beyond the classroom. Getting involved with extracurricular activities and utilizing other available resources, Alexander says, is important for a well-rounded collegiate experience. The UMass Anthropology Club has offered him some terrific experiences, like participating in the club’s volunteer effort to help with community redevelopment projects in Jonestown, Mississippi. Alexander also values the guidance received from professors who discuss their academic and career paths at the weekly club meetings. This year he is the club’s president as well as vice-president of the Phi Kappa Phi Honor Society.
Alexander also participates in conferences, attends special lectures, and is active in events at the Josephine White Eagle Memorial Center. This cultural and social support system for Native Americans in the area also serves as a cultural diversity awareness resource for UMass and the Pioneer Valley area. “All of these assets have helped me better understand material covered in classes.”