BROWNVILLE, Maine — Last year, when Evan Bolstridge was in third grade, he filled out an application and won a scholarship for college.
The win was a complete surprise, the 9-year-old recalled on Tuesday while sitting in the library at Brownville Elementary School, where he is now in fourth grade.
“I was laughing and crying at the same time,” he said. “Usually when those big things come up, I don’t usually win.”
Though the scholarship is only for $100, winning the money has given Evan a jolt of confidence. He doesn’t doubt he will one day go to college after he joins the service, like his dad, he said.
“He’s a carpenter and that’s what I want to do, too,” Evan said. “I’ve got to learn math, drafting, design.”
Evan won his scholarship from Maine College Circle, a nonprofit that seeks to increase college attainment rates in Maine by giving informational workshops and providing $100 scholarships to students in the state’s most economically disadvantaged communities. Last week, the program’s director Bob Stuart gave his presentation at elementary schools in Brownville, Milo, Fort Kent and Mars Hill.
Brownville Elementary School has seen 111 students earn scholarships, the most of any school, Stuart said. The school serves a town of just over 1,000, which sits on the Pleasant River, at least an hour’s drive north of Bangor and 25 miles west of I-95.
“I try to teach them that there is a world out there,” said BJ Bowden, the school’s guidance counselor, who helps facilitate the scholarship program.
“One of the reasons that I got energized is because these kids had never heard of it,” she said, referring to college. “It wasn’t talked about at home.”
In Piscataquis County, where Brownville is located, one out of every four families with children under the age of 18 is living below the poverty line, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That is compared with about 15.7 percent of families with children statewide.
Three-quarters of the population in Piscataquis County do not have a degree beyond a high school diploma, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. However, the census data also show that residents in the central Maine county who have achieved some post-secondary schooling earn, on average, more that $10,000 more annually than those who have not.
“I think when I was growing up, you could go to work at the shoe shop or the mill,” said Jen Baker, who lives in the area. “But they’re not there today.”
The Dexter Shoe Co. closed in 2001 and reduced its workforce by 475.
“We see it on a regular basis. If you’re lucky enough to get with the railroad, you never know from day to day whether you’re going to have a job,” Baker said. “That makes it really hard to have a family and a home.”
“I think college is just so important,” she said.
Baker’s son won a scholarship from the Maine College Circle when he was a student at the LaGrange School four years ago.
“For him to have had to write something, and won something, that’s a huge honor,” she said. Her son wants to be a biologist who works with bears or a game warden, she said.
Stuart started his workshop on Thursday for third-graders at Brownville Elementary School with a vocabulary lesson. First, he taught the students how to spell the word college. Then he moved on to terms such as “bachelor’s degree,” master’s degree,” “doctorate” and “major.”
Next, he asked individual students what they wanted to be when they grow up.
“A country singer,” said one, reluctantly.
He wrote Vanderbilt on the board, then Belmont University and North Eastern State, where he pointed out, Carrie Underwood attended.
In the next class, a section of fourth-graders, he told students where they should go if the wanted to become a veterinarian, an actress or a truck driver.
“You don’t have to go to college to drive trucks,” he said. “But if you go to college and study auto engineering, you’ll have a lot more opportunities and you’ll make a lot more money.”
Several students said they wanted to be on “North Woods Law,” a reality TV series about game wardens in Maine, and Stuart suggested they attend Unity College.
The Maine College Circle is funded by Dead River Co., cPort Credit Union and Machias Savings Bank, among other companies, colleges and foundations. Stuart said he tries to solicit donations from companies and people in the communities he’s working in, but it doesn’t always work out that way.
Stuart works as an independent college counselor in southern Maine. He started this kind of work in 1992 because he thought the difference in the amount of access to information about college between the students he was working with and students in rural Maine was unfair.
Stuart said 90 percent of the student’s he’s given scholarships to attend some sort of schooling after high school, though he’s careful not to take all the credit for those students’ success.
The program’s mission is similar to the Alfond Scholarship Fund, which gives Maine babies $500 that can be used toward a post-secondary degree. Both programs are banking on the idea that a small bit of money will give students the idea that college is an attainable goal.