FORT KENT, Maine — A while back, Aroostook County natives Raynold and Sandy Gauvin read some statistics about education and opportunities in northern Maine and did not like what they saw.

According to information from The Mitchell Institute, northern Maine is lagging behind the rest of the state when it comes to high school students going on to postsecondary education, with cost being cited as one of the key factors.

So the Gauvins decided to do something about that, and on Friday unveiled a new scholarship initiative to help local students earn degrees close to home.

The Gauvin County Scholarship Fund will award $1,000 to a senior from each of the 16 Aroostook County high schools who elect to enroll in one of the county’s four institutions of higher education — the University of Maine at Fort Kent, University of Maine at Presque Isle, Northern Maine Community College in Presque Isle and the Presque Isle campus of Husson University.

The Gauvins, both graduates of Presque Isle High School and now living in Mapleton, got the scholarship fund ball rolling with a $300,000 gift and said subsequent fundraising presentations have been met with enthusiasm by business leaders around the state.

“Our goal is to have raised $5 million for the fund in five years,” Sandy Gauvin said. “The plan is to make it self-sufficient.”

The couple feels it is important to give back to the community which helped them in the past.

“I was a first generation college graduate,” Raynold Gauvin said. “I made it due to the business leaders and members of the community who took an interest in me [and] I wanted to give back to that community who believed in me.”

Raynold Gauvin is the founder of Advantage Payroll, which he began in 1967 to offer payroll and related accounting services to small and midsize businesses.

Today, both Gauvins take an active interest in the future of the area’s young people.

“About 12 years ago we started a scholarship program at Presque Isle High School,” he said. “About two years ago we got thinking about expanding that program to all of Aroostook County.”

The scholarships are aimed at students who display a solid work ethic and willingness to push themselves, according to the Gauvins.

Recipients will also be first generation college enrollees.

“We are going after the kids who are not necessarily the straight-A students or great athletes,” Sandy Gauvin said. “We want the solid, hard workers that don’t always get an opportunity.”

The Gauvins hope the scholarship can help provide that opportunity.

“Sandy and I believe education is the great equalizer,” Raynold Gauvin said. “Aroostook County has the third highest poverty rate [in Maine] and we know education is very much connected to lifting people out of poverty [and] we decided to do something as a couple.”

The Gauvins, who are also concerned with the continuing trend of outmigration of young people from northern Maine, established the scholarship as one of three components in what they are calling the “Aroostook Aspirations Initiative.”

An “aspirations weekend” that will bring the scholarship recipients together for sessions on service and entrepreneurship, and the establishment of an Aroostook County based internship program are the second and third components of the initiative.

“I think this is wonderfully generous,” Jonathan Henry, Husson University associate provost of enrollment management, said on Friday. “This is the kind of direct financial support that students need to get to that next level of education.”

Henry said the scholarship will go beyond helping just the students.

“What is going to help [Aroostook County] is not just more people, but educated people,” he said. “These are the people who will continue businesses and infrastructure support.”

Larry Shaw, president and CEO of Presque Isle-based MMG Insurance Co., spoke at Friday’s unveiling of the initiative at Turner Memorial Library in Presque isle. Afterward, Shaw noted how the opportunities that the Gauvins are looking to provide are good for students and business.

“We are supportive and excited by this because for a company like ourselves, it is all about the workforce,” he said. “We see it as a great chance for kids to get support and other opportunities for entrepreneurial training. We think this is going to enhance the workforce for everyone in [Aroostook] County.”

Shaw serves as an honorary member of the scholarship board of directors.

The Gauvins hope matching the scholarship recipients up with local business leaders and entrepreneurs will show them the opportunities that exist in northern Maine.

“We feel if they have that hands on experience there is a 90 percent chance [the students] will stay in the county to work or develop their own business,” Raynold Gauvin said. “That kind of hands on experience will show them people care.”

The long term benefits of the initiative, according to the Gauvins, are far reaching.

“This is not just about helping the kids of Aroostook County,” Sandy Gauvin said. “It’s also about helping the Aroostook County economy.”

Initially, the scholarship will be awarded to 16 county seniors on a one-time basis, but the couple hopes to increase that through fundraising efforts.

“Sixteen kids may not seem like many but imagine if we get that up to 100 [scholarships] in a year,” Raynold Gauvin said. “And if the recipients get the funds for four years that comes out to 400 awards in a single year — can you imagine the effect that will have on the Aroostook economy?”

Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.