HOULTON, Maine — A new portion of the Houlton Higher Education Center is going to support American Indian students as they make their way through college.
Officials from the University of Maine at Presque Isle and area tribal elders gathered at the Houlton center Wednesday for the dedication of the Houlton Native Education Center within the HHEC designed specifically for Native American students in southern Aroostook County.
The center, a branch of UMPI, is where a number of local students, including many Native American students, take classes.
Similar to the Native Education Center located on the UMPI campus, the center in Houlton was established to better serve American Indian students and provide them with strong support as they complete college. The centers provide everything from tutoring services and assistance in filling out paperwork to establishing positive connections on campus.
Eddy Ruiz, Project Compass director of student success and innovative education for both the Presque Isle and Houlton locations, said the new space in the Houlton center is going to be very beneficial.
“Native American students are the largest percentage of minority students at UMPI and the Houlton Higher Education Center,” he said Thursday. “A lot of these students sometimes don’t feel that they fit in at college because many have spent their whole lives in Native American communities and lived on reservations. They come to college and feel isolated, and there are still a lot of stereotypes out there about Native Americans.”
Both of the centers have been running since November, but have not been fully equipped until now. Ruiz said that having both centers completed is going to have a significant effect on the number of students it serves.
“Now that we have gotten more equipped, we are seeing the foot traffic pick up,” he said. “Students are coming in for help, to use our computers and do homework or just to hang out. And these centers are not just for Native American students, they are for anyone who wants to learn more about the Native America culture.”
The dedication of the center in Houlton began when Danya Boyce of the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians and Imelda Perley of Tobique First Nation oversaw cultural ceremonies including a cleansing-purification of the building, ceremonial prayers and a blessing of the site. Other tribal officials, including a representative from the Aroostook Band of Micmacs, also took part in the event.
“We are so pleased to be joining with tribal elders throughout the region in dedicating the Houlton Native Education Center and creating a comfortable space for our Native American students as they take their university classes,” said UMPI President Don Zillman. “This center will help our students continue their educational success and allow us to continue the good work that is being done through our Project Compass efforts.”
The centers are one component of a major grant project that has been under way at UMPI since last year.
Last January, UMPI became eligible to receive up to $750,000 over the next four years from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation to enable the university to better serve its American Indian student population as well as the region’s American Indian community.
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 underrepresented populations graduating with four-year degrees. Project Compass is administered by the foundation’s intermediary, the New England Resource Center for Higher Education.
As part of Project Compass, the college has undertaken a comprehensive, multiyear plan to improve American Indian student retention, academic success and graduation rates at UMPI.
The university has engaged the Aroostook Band of Micmacs and the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians in this effort. Along with the new Native Education Centers, staffers have been hired to welcome American Indian students to campus and build bridges between the students and academic departments. The university also has developed integrated First Year Learning Communities to cater to American Indians and other underserved groups of students.