Editor’s Note: The Bangor Daily News is following three freshmen enrolled at the University of Maine at Fort Kent through the academic year in an effort to determine why the state’s most northern university was selected in 2010 for the sixth time by The Princeton Review as one of the best colleges in the Northeast. This is the first of an occasional series.
FORT KENT, Maine — Shelby Deschaine set foot on campus after a last-minute change of heart. Elizabeth Gray never gave another college a second thought after feeling the quick embrace of the campus community. For Amine El Moumen, the initial attraction was the spin of a black-and-white soccer ball.
Three strangers from different parts of Maine and Canada all came to the University of Maine at Fort Kent in September, starting out as freshmen at a school that had just been selected for the sixth time by The Princeton Review as one of the best colleges in the Northeast.
The newcomers knew of the college’s award-winning status when they first applied, but they weren’t sure how it would affect their education or their overall experience at the liberal arts institution that caters to just more than 1,100 students.
In the beginning
It was August in northern Maine, and memories of her graduation from Fort Kent Community High School were fresh in the mind of 18-year-old Shelby Deschaine. It had been a fantastic year with great friends, but times had changed, and she was packing boxes, ready to leave her hometown of Fort Kent behind and embrace life on campus at the University of Southern Maine.
“I was all set and ready to go to orientation, and then I changed my mind,” she said during an interview at the UMFK campus this fall. “I realized that I could get the college education that I needed right in my own backyard, and it would be cheaper, and I could be closer to my family.”
About two weeks before classes began, Deschaine enrolled at UMFK as a biology and pre-dental student.
“The first day, it was kind of weird,” she acknowledged. “It didn’t feel like I was in college, especially since the high school is right next door. I also knew a lot of people from high school who were already enrolled at UMFK, so it was kind of like a reunion.
“Along with that, I had also kind of gotten into UMFK life already because I got involved in one of their community clubs while I was still in high school. Right away, I felt like I fit right in. The professors were welcoming and challenging at the same time, and the students were so open and friendly. I made new friends right away.”
One of those friends was Elizabeth Gray, 18, of Sedgwick, an elementary education major and recent graduate of George Stevens Academy in Blue Hill. The two met when Gray walked into the local Rite Aid and found Deschaine behind the counter.
Deschaine, who works part time at the store, sold Gray a fan to cool her room in the residence hall. The two became fast friends, and Deschaine instantly made plans to show her the local sights and to take her to Canada for a day.
While Deschaine lives at home with her parents, Gray lives on campus with three roommates in The Lodge, a suite-style residence hall.
“I heard a few weeks before I got here that UMFK was named as one of the best Northeast colleges,” Gray said. “And I knew then that I had made the right decision choosing UMFK. I felt welcome here from the very start. Every time you walk around campus, someone waves to you.”
Both young women threw themselves into campus life, joining clubs and getting involved in student organizations. By early December, Gray was closer to becoming an official Kappa Delta Rho sorority sister and had joined the Student Senate. She also helps plan events on campus.
Deschaine is involved with the Newman Club, a group of UMFK students who work to improve the quality of life on campus through activities and events involving spiritual and personal development. She also is involved with the campus art club. Neither young woman was interested in joining a sports team, but that was a big part of the reason Amine El Moumen chose UMFK.
Born in Morocco, he moved with his family to Montreal as a child. He fell in love with soccer and traveled all over Canada to play. In 2008, his team played an exhibition game against the UMFK men. His best friend attended UMFK the next year and suggested to UMFK coach Bill Ashby that he should consider recruiting El Moumen.
“UMFK is a great place, and I know I made a great decision coming here,” El Moumen said. “I never really considered any other colleges. This place had everything I was looking for.”
El Moumen spent much of his first semester at UMFK either in the classroom — where he is majoring in computer applications — on the soccer field, or on the road traveling to a soccer game. He became an invaluable part of the UMFK men’s team, making a name for himself as the college’s second-leading scorer. He helped his team advance to the NAIA National Tournament’s Final 16.
“It was a challenge handling college and soccer, but it was something I was used to,” he said in early December. “I traveled a lot for games in high school, so I had already learned a lot about time management and balance. And my teammates and coach were very supportive.”
Like Deschaine and Gray, El Moumen said he feels embraced by the campus community.
“I am an international student, so there was always a little fear that I would not be accepted,” he said. “But that isn’t the case here. This place is so welcoming, and I have met so many students from other countries. Any feelings of unease disappeared quickly.”
While soccer took up much of his time during his first semester, El Moumen also wants to get involved in campus life. He began attending local high school soccer games and has checked out restaurants. He is eager to see the Can-Am Crown International Sled Dog Race in Fort Kent in March. A number of UMFK students vol-unteer at the event, and all three freshmen said they were either considering doing the same or planning to attend.
Academics at UMFK
According to officials at The Princeton Review, staffers reviewed hundreds of institutions in each region of the country and primarily selected for their list of Best Northeast Colleges those facilities that featured excellent academic programs.
They also took into account institutional data that they collected directly from the schools, the opinions of staff, and reports from students attending the schools about their campus experiences on student surveys for the project.
Student feedback was generated through an 80-question survey designed for the project. According to UMFK’s profile on The Princeton Review’s website, students at UMFK said the college provides them with a high-quality education at a state school with “very reasonable tuition.”
Students also said Fort Kent’s location makes it “a natural choice for students of forestry, wildlife sciences and environmental studies.”
The profile pointed out that UMFK students said the university’s proximity to the rich forests and waterways of the St. John Valley allow them to go on field trips five minutes from campus and be “completely submerged in hands-on experiences that will aid students when filling out their resumes.”
“Business studies and nursing are also strong here” is noted on the website. “Of the latter, students brag that ‘the nursing program is one of the toughest in the state, but the pass rate is very high. The professors are very good about assisting students in their work.’”
All of the students interviewed for this story said they are seeing the physical proof of the survey results.
“The professors here challenge you, but they are always on your side,” Deschaine said. “I have found that if I need help with a class, I can go to the professor, and he will stay late or come in earlier to help me. They also will make sure that you understand what they explained before they leave.”
“Anytime I have needed help, it has been there,” she said. “UMFK also has a great tutoring program. It is free, and I know a lot of students who take advantage of it. The professors keep you interested in the subject matter.”
“I have really developed some great one-on-one relationships with my professor,” El Moumen said. “The small student population here makes those kind of relationships possible. It’s great.”
Tuition also was a major factor in the students’ decisions to attend UMFK, especially for Deschaine.
“I couldn’t see going to USM and paying all of this money for tuition and housing when I could find the same thing in my hometown,” she said. In-state undergraduate tuition is $211 per credit hour at UMFK and $242 at USM.
Gray, who also had looked at the University of Maine at Farmington, said that the cheaper UMFK tuition heavily influenced her decision to head north to college. Her tuition at UMF would have been $251 per credit hour. El Moumen said the tuition for international students at UMFK was lower than at other colleges he had re-searched.
All three also said the smaller class sizes allowed them to develop closer relationships with their professors.
“You are not just a face here,” Gray said. “I like it, but of course it has its downsides. I have heard some of my classmates tell me that if they skip a class, the professor always knows about it.”
“It is very much like being in a high school class here in Maine,” Deschaine agreed. “You get that individualized attention.”
All three are looking forward to the start of the spring semester.
“Classes have gone really smoothly, and the school year is going great.” Gray said just before the school holiday break. “I am grateful to have this opportunity to attend UMFK.”