ORONO, Maine — Former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell had a lot of help coming up in the world. The Waterville-raised son of immigrant parents credits a number of individuals and institutions with giving him a helping hand to become the effective political leader he is today.
“If even a few of those people had failed to help me, who knows what I would be doing?” he remarked during an interview Sunday. Now, serving as the U.S. special envoy to the Middle East, Mitchell is committed to providing the same kind of help to other deserving Maine youngsters through the work of his George J. Mitchell Scholarship Research Institute, which he founded in 1994. Each year the organization awards a college scholarship to one graduating senior from each public high school in Maine. The awards are based on a combination of academic standing, community service and financial need.
On Sunday, Mitchell was at the University of Maine to welcome the latest class of Mitchell scholars. About 50 students, along with their parents and other supporters, attended a late-morning brunch at Wells Commons on the Orono campus.
Mitchell told his audience that during the eight years he served in the U.S. Senate, he made a point of visiting every public high school in the state to meet and talk with graduating seniors. In many students’ eyes, he said, he saw himself reflected.
“They were uncertain and insecure. They didn’t know much about life or their future in the world,” he said. The experience persuaded him of the need to give back some of the help he had received — help that enabled him to earn his undergraduate degree from Bowdoin College and then go on to earn a law degree from Georgetown University and assume a high-profile role as a global statesman.
In addition to the approximately $5,000 scholarship each selected student receives, the Mitchell Institute also offers recipients a number of other benefits, including participation in academic and professional mentoring relationships, career coaching and development and paid internship opportunities. Students may attend any college within the state of Maine, and one student from each of Maine’s 16 counties may attend an out-of-state school.
The goal is to encourage ambitious Maine students to complete college and to develop a well-educated work force within the state, Mitchell said.
Students from the 2010 class of Mitchell Scholars have been accepted to virtually every public and private college in the state, as well as to Yale University, Endicott College, Renssalaer Polytechnic Institute, and several other out-of-state schools.
Gabrielle Mozie, 17, of Scarborough will attend the University of Southern Maine this fall. Her application for the Mitchell Institute award included an essay on living with spinal muscular atrophy, a genetic condition that confines her to a wheelchair, constricts her breathing and imposes many other challenges. She said her educational goal is to study computer forensics. An honor roll student at Scarborough High School, Mozie has served as a Maine “goodwill ambassador” for the Muscular Dystrophy Association.
Anna Sherwood of Easton has chosen to pursue a degree in Human Ecology at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor. Her father died when she was a child, and her mother is unemployed.
“We don’t have a lot of money at home,” she said, so the support of the Mitchell Institute is most welcome.
Kelsea Dixon of Old Orchard Beach is one of the first in her family to go to college. She will attend Endicott College in Beverly, Mass., this fall and plans a career in communications and advertising.
Eric White of Brewer loves sports but is aiming tentatively for a career in engineering. His parents are part owners of a Subway sandwich shop. One of three brothers, he will live at home this fall while he attends UMaine.
To date, the Mitchell Institute has given out more than $8 million in scholarships. The money is raised primarily from Maine individuals and corporations, including many banks. Mitchell said difficult economic times strain both corporate giving and family budgets, but that the work of the Mitchell Institute is more critical now than ever.
Mitchell is vacationing this week at his summer home on Mount Desert Island. Late last week, he flew home to the U.S. from the Middle East, where he has been working with international leaders to reopen direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Mitchell said he is optimistic that peace negotiations, suspended in 2008, will resume despite ongoing tensions and deep-rooted animosities in the region.
Mitchell is credited with brokering the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland. In recognition of that achievement, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Liberty Medal.
In his acceptance speech, Mitchell stated: “I believe there’s no such thing as a conflict that can’t be ended. They’re created and sustained by human beings. They can be ended by human beings. No matter how ancient the conflict, no matter how hateful, no matter how hurtful, peace can prevail.”