ORONO, Maine — At first it was about the money.
As a senior at Old Town High School in 2007, Scott LaFlamme knew he would need some financial aid to go to college. He applied for the Mitchell scholarship, which would provide him with $5,000 over the course of four years as long as he kept up his grades.
LaFlamme said this week that at the time he didn’t really know much about Sen. George Mitchell, the man whose organization has since 1999 awarded one scholarship a year to a student in every public high school in Maine.
But 2½ years since LaFlamme graduated from high school, the Bradley native says the Senator George J. Mitchell Scholarship Research Institute has given him an opportunity to shape his own future; a chance he wouldn’t have had without support from Mitchell’s organization.
LaFlamme, a public management major in his third year at the University of Maine, isn’t the only Maine student to be affected by the scholarship and other options offered by the Mitchell Institute. The Portland-based organization announced Friday afternoon in a report that it has paid out more than $4.7 million to 1,420 Mitchell scholars since 1999, when the program expanded to its current format.
Adding in awards made before 1999 and scholarships currently pledged to scholars, the total soars to $6 million, according to “A Decade of Impact: Measuring the Mitchell Institute’s Educational & Economic Outcomes.”
“It’s a fantastic program, one of the best Maine has to offer for young people,” LaFlamme said this week during an interview in UMaine’s Memorial Union building. “They really take a holistic approach of bettering Maine through [its] young people, and there are few programs or organizations like that, that can say they make this type of impact on Maine.”
Penobscot County has had the highest number of Mitchell scholars in the state, a function of the number of high schools in the county, with 175 in the past 10 years.
Mitchell scholars are chosen based on financial need — winners are twice as likely as U.S. college freshmen to be from families with incomes below $50,000, according to the report — as well as academic performance and community service. LaFlamme, who like 65 percent of Mitchell scholars comes from a family in which neither parent holds a bachelor’s degree, is part of the first generation in his family to attend a four-year university. His brother Kevin is a college graduate.
The Mitchell scholarship also includes activities such as leadership training and networking opportunities. LaFlamme didn’t take advantage of those opportunities at first, instead choosing to work at a fast-food restaurant the summer before he started college.
But after his freshman year, LaFlamme realized he wanted a summer internship that could give him a taste of local politics, an area in which he thought he might pursue a career. LaFlamme called Peggy Daigle, the city manager of Old Town, and they worked out an internship program for him.
LaFlamme also applied for the Mitchell Institute’s Career Opportunity Summer Awards, or COSA, program, which provides Mitchell scholars with stipends while working in a career-focused summer job. He was awarded a $2,000 stipend, which allowed him to work alongside Daigle and get a taste of the workings of municipal government.
The COSA program requires that Mitchell scholars start a community service project in addition to their work experience. LaFlamme helped with an ongoing effort to start a farmers market for Old Town.
He also decided to run for Old Town City Council, and won a seat last November with 97 percent of the vote. LaFlamme said he is the second-youngest person to hold elected office in Maine.
“Because I want to be a city or town manager, it’s been excellent experience for me because of how we have to adjust and react to the different things that have been happening,” said LaFlamme, who interned for the town of Bradley this summer after receiving another COSA stipend.
LaFlamme, who is on track to graduate in five years with both bachelor’s and master’s degrees, wants to stay in Maine after his graduation.
“I would like to go to the coast somewhere because of the quality of life, or go up north somewhere, to a place that could use my help,” LaFlamme said. “I’m trying to gain as much experience and knowledge as I can.”