UMaine System reaching out to Japanese students

Posted March 23, 2011, at 8:02 p.m.
Last modified March 23, 2011, at 8:21 p.m.
ORONO, Maine — While countless countries, businesses, relief groups, and individuals marshal efforts to get much-needed supplies and materials to tsunami- and earthquake-stricken Japan, the University of Maine System is offering a different form of international assistance.

In cooperation with Maine businesses and organizations as well as the state’s congressional delegation, all seven UMS campuses will offer discounted tuition rates, support services, and an expedited enrollment process to English-speaking Japanese students currently enrolled at Japanese universities that have postponed or terminated classes.

“It’s mindful of the Hurricane Katrina situation, where we had several students temporarily relocate to Maine during that crisis,” said UMS Chancellor Richard Pattenaude.

The idea, which emerged from a board meeting last week in response to suggestions by UMS public relations director Peggy Markson and James Breece, UMS chancellor for academic affairs, has very quickly become a reality.

“People were discussing ways we could offer help, given the relationships and connections we already have established in Japan,” said Karen Boucias, director of the University of Maine office of international programs. “Not all avenues of transportation are up and running over there, so they can’t accept a lot of goods. So this is a unique way we can offer assistance.”

The UMaine System established an exchange program with Hirosaki University in Aomori prefecture on the northern coast of Honshu Island under UM president Fred Hutchinson in 1997.

“We’ve been involved with Japan for some time,” noted UMaine alumnus and Bangor native Wade Merritt, vice president of the Maine International Trade Center in Portland. “Maine and Aomori have a sister state relationship which was established under Gov. Angus King in 1996.”

Merritt said the UMaine System response is just one way the state is trying to provide aid and assistance.

“Because of this longstanding relationship, we pulled together meetings with several interested and affected groups to see what Maine could do to respond to the disaster,” he said. “That could be anything from composite technology going on at UMaine to environmental engineering expertise from southern Maine companies.”

Currently, there are 13 Japanese students, seven on the Orono campus, enrolled in the UM System and one American UMaine student attending Hirosaki in the exchange program. Another will be attending Hirosaki in late spring.

“They [Hirosaki] had a few problems there, but nothing like they had in other areas,” said Boucias. “It’s gratifying to see the outpouring of support from the Bangor and Orono areas, as well as southern Maine. We have a lot of ties with Japan, even though we’re not next to each other geographically.”

Pattenaude said the UMaine System was uniquely positioned to respond with this kind of assistance because it has two well-established offices of international programs at the University of Southern Maine in Portland and UMaine in Orono, an intensive English-as-a-second-language program, and a centralized international office involved in every aspect of international education around the university and surrounding communities.

“If this produces a dozen students from Japan, this helps make us more diverse and it helps some students in the process,” Pattenaude said.

The program will offer Japanese students discounted tuition similar to the current Canadian student rate; mentor services through the system’s international programs and by Japanese citizens in the UMS community; and a quicker, streamlined application process to be a “visiting student” for up to one year.

“This is not a giveway as we’re askling them to pay for housing and Canadian tuition, but it’s about opening the door and making education accessible and offering help where it may be needed,” Pattenaude said. “And the university benefits because we’re always looking to have more international students.”

And then there’s the potential added benefit of Japanese students’ exposure to the University of Maine System and the state as a whole.

“Word of mouth is one of the best recruitment tools there is, so I would think if someone came over here, it would be a very positive experience … because that has been the case with past students here from abroad,” Boucias said.

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