UMass Boston’s first and only study abroad coordinator is retiring this September after 25 years of dedicated service to the University. Lurlene Van Buren has impacted hundreds of students during her time at UMass Boston. She was vital to the creation of the Study Abroad program at UMass Boston now housed under the Office of Global Programs. Without her initiative and efforts many of the 45+ exchange programs in 20 countries the university now has to offer would not have existed. She has enabled many hundreds of UMass Boston students to gain experience studying abroad, and has had a profound impact on the lives of many.
Lurlene started working at the university in 1992 as an Administrative Assistant in the Chancellor’s Office. While working full-time there, she was also a single parent to two children Eugene and Inita, and was taking courses at UMass Boston at night for her intended degree in Business Administration. Her story is like so many that study at UMass Boston. Not only was she the first in her family to attend college, she was the first to earn a high school diploma as well.
Lurlene soon realized her passion was in her interaction with students, and decided to move to a degree in Sociology. After five years in Chancellor’s office, Lurlene got a promotion as the first ever Study Abroad Coordinator at UMass Boston.
She realized long before many the importance of international experience to the ever-expanding globalized workforce. Tirelessly she fought to give students the opportunity to study abroad.
Lurlene at a study abroad information table.
Simply stated by Lurlene, “Studying abroad has a huge effect on students for the rest of their lives… It is very important for their growth as people. Personally and professionally. We have the responsibility to prepare our students for their work-life. Our students should have the same opportunities as students who attend private institutions like the ones we are surrounded by in Boston.”
She even wrote to the former Governor many times giving him information on the importance of studying abroad for students in Massachusetts. Her efforts and coordination led Governor Cellucci to Proclaiming International Education Week every November for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 2000. This Proclamation now hangs in her office. Her passion for giving all students, regardless of their disabilities or lack of self-confidence, a chance to study abroad is what she considers to be her greatest achievement at UMass Boston. She received the Chancellor’s Achievement Award in 2006 because of this commitment.
"Studying abroad has a huge effect on students for the rest of their lives… It is very important for their growth as people. Personally and professionally. We have the responsibility to prepare our students for their work-life. Our students should have the same opportunities as students who attend private institutions like the ones we are surrounded by in Boston." - Lurlene Van Buren
UMass Boston study abroad alumni Mark D’Agostino, (BSc Biology, 2002) was deeply impacted by Lurlene’s encouragement and advising. “Oh no, I can’t do that!” Mark said to Lurlene as she told him he should study at Oxford through the Oxford Study Abroad Program, a program Lurlene negotiated successfully for UMass Boston to be an affiliated partner of one of the top universities in the world. If there is one thing Lurlene will never hear, it’s that something cannot be accomplished. She pushed Mark to do what he thought was impossible and Mark studied at Oxford. Mark excelled during a semester at the University of Oxford and won a Marshall Scholarship. After having completed two masters degrees in England, he got a medical degree from Brown University.
Many years later, Mark shares his experience with Lurlene. He writes,
“Truthfully, given my non-traditional path to college, I did not believe that the same scholarship that produced Supreme Court Justices and titans of business would ever consider a high school drop-out. The following year, I became the first Marshall Scholarship recipient in UMass Boston’s history; a designation that undoubtedly would not have been possible without Lurlene. Now, as a physician and faculty at Cornell Medical School, I can say with confidence that I would not be where I am today without Lurlene’s commitment and stewardship. Thank you, Lurlene, for all that you did for me, and for countless UMass students.” - Mark D'Agostino
Lurlene sent so many UMass Boston students to Oxford, which she considers one of her greatest accomplishments. “What I got most enjoyment out of”, she says, “are the students that felt like they couldn’t do it. I gave them that little push they needed, and they did great things. Those students were the most satisfying for me”. Here she is pictured below with one of those students, Dana Francois, a two-time study abroad student to Oxford and Germany. Dana is now the Program Manager for the W.K. Kellogg Foundation for Haiti.
Lurlene also welcomed hundreds of exchange students to UMass Boston from universities abroad. She coordinated the arrival of all of these students, from registering them for their courses, to finding the housing, and providing motherly care to each of them. Her support and enthusiasm for those arriving comforted many students who were stepping out of their home country for the first time. These students many times decided to enroll at UMass Boston as international students and remain in Boston because of her support, something that has greatly impacted not only the revenue of the university, but continued to increase the diversity of the university’s population.
"Our vibrant, multi-cultural educational environment encourages our broadly diverse campus community to thrive and succeed." -UMass Boston mission statement
Mark Bellin from Italy, and Bjorn Stengel from Germany, came as exchange students to UMass Boston They met each other during their undergraduate studies here and became close friends. They became very close to Lurlene as she advised and supported them throughout their year of study here.
After returning to their home countries, Mark and Bjorn could not shake the experience they had with Lurlene and UMass Boston. They both returned to UMass Boston as graduate students in 2014 and completed their MBA degree at the university. Through Lurlene, Bjorn met his girlfriend Stephanie Garnier at UMass Boston, who came as an exchange student from the West Indies. Mark now works in PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP in New York City and Bjorn interns at Ceres insurance company in Boston. Stephanie has been accepted to the MBA program in Journalism at George Washington University.
Stephanie spoke about their experience with Lurlene, saying “Lurlene was more than my international coordinator. She was like a second mother who took care of me in this brand new environment. She gave me a lot of “firsts” in my life. My first winter. My first overseas education. My first apartment.” Bjorn added, “Lurlene is a person who makes a difference at UMass Boston, who stands out as someone who always wants the best for "her kids", who would never let you down and always wants to make sure you feel home. Boston has become my home, and I can truly say that Lurlene has been one of the persons that made that possible.” Bjorn and Stephanie are pictured below.
Stephanie and Bjorn in a restaurant in Boston.
This is just one of the many stories of students being impacted so greatly by Lurlene they decided to continue their studies at UMass Boston. She has run into many of those students in the US since their time studying at UMass Boston, who still recognize her years later. “When those students are received warmly, they really appreciate that. They’ll love you for that. I’ve gotten so much love from students coming from other countries here because what they need more than anything is a mother away from home. They call me mom still, 10 years later after they come back.”
"Boston has become my home, and I can truly say that Lurlene has been one of the persons that made that possible." - Bjorn Stengel
What is Lurlene’s advice to future students thinking of studying abroad through UMass Boston or coming to UMass Boston as an exchange student?
“To always remember that they will have experiences they will never forget. That will change them in better ways, it always does. It will open their mind to other people, other smells, other tastes, and other ways of looking at things. At other perspectives. It will broaden their horizons beyond this small piece of the world. Don’t limit yourself. Don’t limit you’re thinking and limit your experience. You can have all of the world.”
Lurlene plans to spend her retirement doing more of what she already loves. Attending more field services for the Jehovah Witness ministry, spending more time with her four grandchildren, maintaining her garden (which she admits she grows mainly so the deer that live in her neighborhood can eat it), and to teach tap dance to elderly women. Finally, she will go fishing a lot more, an activity she is known for throughout the Office of Global Programs for taking scholars and exchange students many times.
Lurlene’s retirement party was held Friday August 11th 2017. Many of her former exchange students, colleagues, and friends were in attendance. Some traveled from away to pay tribute to Lurlene. We received an abundance of letters with best wishes for Lurlene. Duncan Nelson and Michael Sullivan, Professors of English at UMass Boston and long-term colleagues of Lurlene performed a poem/rap at her retirement about Lurlene. There was even a surprise appearance by Sandy Chu, a former international student from 20 years ago who came from Taiwan as a 17 year old freshman to UMass Boston. Now she is a program manager at Cisco.
Lurlene with her children and Sandy Chu with her two children at Lurlene's retirement party.
Julie Leitman, long-time friend and vice president of our affiliated provider company API, hosted a retirement lunch for Lurlene. They have been working together for 20 years and have watched study abroad grow along the way. Below is a photo from the retirement lunch, including Ksenija Borojevic and Brittany Dhooge from the Office of Global Programs, and Julie Leitman and Amy Whitish-Temple from API.
On behalf of the entire University, we thank you Lurlene, for impacting the lives of so many in such a meaningful way. You are a light to all those around you. We can only hope to mimic your efforts to continue the deep passion you have for our students and their accomplishments. Our university thrives on diversity and opportunity for so many non-traditional students, leading to the University earning the Senator Paul Simon Award for Comprehensive Internationalization in 2016. From the Mission of UMass Boston, “Our vibrant, multi-cultural educational environment encourages our broadly diverse campus community to thrive and succeed.” Your efforts were a cornerstone of this idea that has propelled UMass Boston as a beacon of global learning.
Lurlene (center) with the Office of Global Programs staff Britany (left), Ksenija (above), and Mariana (right) in her office.