Aroostook County has one of the highest high school graduation rates in Maine, but one of the lowest rates of college completion.
This fact is one of a number of discouraging trends that has inspired a multifaceted effort to improve educational and career opportunities for Aroostook County students.
Called the Aroostook Aspirations Initiative, the endeavor expands a scholarship program started by Presque Isle residents Ray and Sandy Gauvin in 2000. In the following 10 years, the Gauvin Family Scholarship helped many Presque Isle High School students pursue higher education. The AAI restructures that program to include high schools throughout the County.
“There are jobs up here,” said Sandy Gauvin, AAI president, quoting business leaders in the County who say they need trained workers. “Kids get training and say there are no jobs here. Somehow, there is a disconnect. Businesses and [students] need to get on the same page.”
Making connections that will keep young people in Aroostook County and thus help strengthen the economy of northern Maine is a central theme of AAI. After two years of planning, the new initiative was launched in April at the Turner Memorial Library in Presque Isle.
With an initial gift of $300,000, the Gauvins created an endowment with a goal of $5 million to be realized in 10 years. The fund is managed by the Maine Community Foundation.
Many strategic partners in education and business are in place, and leaders from throughout the state, as well as Aroostook, serve on the board of directors.
“Things are falling together beautifully,” Gauvin said. “Cary Medical Center and The Aroostook Medical Center are on board and the media have been extremely supportive. [Former] Maine Education Commissioner [Stephen] Bowen called the initiative ‘a model for the state’ when he spoke at the launch in April.”
Beginning in March 2014, the new Gauvin County Scholarship Fund will award a $1,000 scholarship to a graduating senior in each of the county’s 16 high schools who plans to attend one of the four colleges in Aroostook County: Husson University’s Presque Isle site, University of Maine at Presque Isle, University of Maine at Fort Kent and Northern Maine Community College in Presque Isle. Candidates will be identified by school officials as well as programs such as Upward Bound.
Focused primarily on economically disadvantaged and first-generation college students, AAI founders anticipate an increase in both the depth and breadth of the scholarships to encompass more students for more years.
The scholarship is one of six components in the AAI program.
Gauvin Scholars also will participate in an Aroostook Aspirations Weekend at the University of Maine at Fort Kent in the spring. Seminars and speakers will provide information and resources on job skills, college issues, financial literacy and similar topics. The weekend will culminate in a cooperative community service project.
Entrepreneurial training and summer internships are additional elements of the initiative. Northern Maine Community College will host entrepreneurial training for Gauvin Scholars who want to start their own businesses, connecting them with successful County business people. Summer internships with local employers will give Gauvin Scholars practical experience that may lead to long-term relationships.
“One of the best ways to help a young person understand what is involved in his or her chosen career and to create networking opportunities is to participate in an internship,” Gauvin said. “Therefore, the Aroostook Aspirations Initiative has created a place on its website at www.gauvinfund.org, where employers and potential interns can connect to create this valuable learning experience.”
In the fall, a formal gala called “The Night with the Stars” will be held at the University of Maine at Presque Isle to showcase and celebrate the Gauvin Scholars. Scholarships announced in the spring will be formally presented and speeches by local leaders and, in time, past scholarship recipients will reinforce the community’s support for and confidence in the awardees.
The gala also will recognize schools that have made good use of technology and individuals who have helped students achieve their goals. “This person could be a custodian or the school cook — anyone who encouraged a young person, who might not have otherwise done so, to go on to college,” Gauvin said of possible award candidates.
The sixth component of the initiative is a countywide series of community service projects for students of all ages designed to meet the Maine Learning Results performance indicators for civic action and service-learning projects. Using a “custom service-matching platform” to connect schools and local organizations, the projects will begin in four pilot schools in the spring of 2014 and expand to all county school districts in following years.
AAI founders also created a Dream-Catcher Fund to help students who face sudden emergencies during their studies that might prevent them from attending classes or completing their college experience.
Both natives of Aroostook County, Ray and Sandy Gauvin see their efforts as a way of giving back to their community. A first-generation college student and Vietnam veteran from Van Buren, Ray owned Advantage Payroll Services and created the initial scholarship fund after he sold the franchise. Born in Houlton, Sandy grew up in Presque Isle and has taught special education students at all levels in Fort Fairfield, Presque Isle and Mapleton.
“Aroostook County is a wonderful place to work and raise a family,” she said. “Many young people want to remain in the area where they were raised, near relatives and friends, but they are not always aware of the educational, career and financial opportunities available to them in northern Maine.
“We can encourage our kids to stay in the county, work here, raise their families here and ensure a lively economy well into the future.”
For more information, visit www.gauvinfund.org.
Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at email@example.com or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.