PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — After a successful first year using grant money to help develop and improve culturally responsive retention strategies for its American Indian students, the University of Maine at Presque Isle will spend three days next week showcasing its success and moving forward with bigger plans for the coming years.
Officials from around the state and New England will gather from Sept. 30 to Oct. 2 at the university for a meeting focusing on the university’s Project Compass grant program.
In January, UMPI received a grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation that is being used to allow UMPI to better serve its American Indian student population as well as the region’s American Indian community.
The award made the university eligible to receive up to $750,000 over the next four years to put toward this effort. UMPI is one of four universities in New England chosen to participate in Project Compass, the Nellie Mae Education Foundation’s multiyear initiative aimed at increasing the number of under-represented popula-tions graduating with four-year degrees. Project Compass is administered by the foundation’s intermediary, the New England Resource Center for Higher Education.
Representatives from these Native American groups, community leaders and area educators will gather at UMPI on Wednesday for a special dinner to kick off the event. Glenn Gabbard, the associate director of the New England Resource Center for Higher Education and the director of Project Compass, also will be in atten-dance.
“This event is going to allow us to get all of the players together to show them what we have done and brainstorm about our long-range plans,” Myrth Schwartz, administrative assistant for Project Compass, said Friday. “We have done a lot of work that our Native American students have responded to and we are not done yet.”
The dinner Wednesday evening will feature a keynote address by John Bear Mitchell, the associate director of the Wabanaki Center at the University of Maine. Schwartz said tribal chiefs from throughout the region have been invited to attend. Drumming groups are expected to perform as part of the evening’s activities.
On Thursday, a ceremony will be held to dedicate the new Native American Educational and Services Center on campus.
The new center, in 311 South Hall, is a place where Native American students can go to receive tutoring and support, secure assistance filling out required forms or just “hang out,” Schwartz added Friday.
“This is also a place where they can go and feel comfortable,” she said. The center will be open 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays.
The university also has established a similar place at the Houlton Higher Education Center.
During the dedication, a ceremony will be led by John Dennis, the cultural director for the Aroostook Band of Micmacs, to bless the center.
Luke Joseph, the retention activities coordinator for Project Compass, began working with the program earlier this year. Joseph is instrumental in welcoming Native American students to campus and building bridges between the students and university departments.
“We have 65 native students on campus right now,” he said Friday afternoon. “So far, I feel this project is working for them. It has proven its worth.”
Joseph noted that most of the students he works with are nontraditional. They often live in the area and commute to campus. Many have lived on reservations with other Native Americans, he said, and some feel out of their element when they set foot on campus.
Like any other student, Joseph added, they need to feel included in the campus community.
“At the beginning of the semester, I sent out letters to the students explaining what I do and how I can help,” he said. “I told them about the centers and sought them out, making sure that they knew that this resource exists for them. I also help them set up a relationship with their academic adviser, so that is just another support person they have on campus.”
After the dedication ceremony, the remainder of the event will be work time, as educators and community leaders determine the next steps for the grant program.
Dr. Ray Rice, who is overseeing the grant program at UMPI, was looking forward to the event and the work that will be accomplished there.
“This meeting marks an important milestone for the university’s Project Compass efforts and is a recognition of how hard our community of practice group has worked to bring the program to this point,” said Rice. “We are very much looking forward to the results of this gathering and the brainstorming, idea-sharing, and long-range planning that will ultimately and most importantly benefit our Native American student population.”
Schwartz said she believes that UMPI’s work with Project Compass has been beneficial for all involved.
“This is a great thing for the college to be involved in because we have Native Americans from three tribes here,” she said. “These students come from Maine, other states and Canada. This project is helping us support these students by getting them to start and finish college.”
The other three Project Compass grant recipients are Lyndon State College in Vermont, Bridgewater State College in Massachusetts and Eastern Connecticut State University.