A scholarship program that for 15 years has sent top American students to Ireland and is named for one of Maine’s best-known politicians has been denied continued funding by the U.S. State Department, a program official said Wednesday.

Trina Vargo, founder and president of the nonprofit U.S.-Ireland Alliance, said the state department has rebuffed an effort by Maine’s congressional delegation and a group of supporters to restore funding for the George J. Mitchell Scholarship program.

The scholarships to study in Ireland are separate from the Mitchell Scholarships, awarded through the Portland-based Mitchell Institute, established by the former senator in 1995. Those scholarships are granted to a graduating senior from each of the 130 public high schools in Maine.

Vargo said former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton cut the program’s $485,000 out of her department budget before she left office in early 2013. Current Secretary of State John Kerry has refused to add the funding back in. That refusal comes despite a letter requesting the restored funding by 50 members of Congress, including all four members of Maine’s congressional delegation, Vargo said.

“The George J. Mitchell Scholarship program … serves as a living symbol of the important cultural and political ties between the United States and the people and governments of Ireland and Northern Ireland,” stated the Oct. 17 letter sent from members of Congress to Secretary of State John Kerry. “We were disappointed that recent budget requests have eliminated this funding. Recent events in Ukraine are a strong reminder that strengthening relationships and U.S. interests in Europe must remain a firm priority for the State Department.”

However, Julia Frifield of the State Department wrote in an Oct. 30 letter to Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine that additional government funding could not be found in a “constrained budget environment.”

“The State Department has, however, at the highest levels, offered the US-Ireland Alliance assistance in identifying private funding to fill the gap,” she wrote.

But Vargo, once a longtime foreign advisor to late Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, said without a new funding source or a major donation by a benefactor, the program will be forced to bleed dry its endowment of just less than $6 million and ultimately shut down.

“From my perspective, it’s kind of the beginning of the end,” Vargo said. “We’ve already started spending from the endowment.”

She said the program needs about $600,000 per year to operate, with $125,000 of that coming from Irish and other smaller sources. In order to run the program in perpetuity off of an endowment, she said, it would need an endowment of about $40 million. Vargo said the Republic of Ireland has offered to match her fundraising up to 20 million euros — the current equivalent of about $25 million.

The program chooses 12 scholarship winners each year out of a field of nearly 300 applicants, making it about as competitive as the similarly formatted — but longer standing — Rhodes Scholar program, which sends students to England’s Oxford University. Vargo said that in the past two award cycles, seven students were offered both Mitchell and Rhodes scholarships, and six of those seven opted to accept the Mitchell scholarships.

“It’s just this amazing program that’s beating the Rhodes, but many people have never heard of it,” Vargo said.

Vargo attributed the state department’s reluctance to fund the program to the country’s recent shift in focus toward Asia and the Middle East, instead of Europe. But students in the Mitchell program often choose to learn more about what its namesake senator did to broker the peace agreement in Northern Ireland, she said, then take those lessons to work in areas where conflict continues, such as the Middle East.

“There are a half-dozen people working in state department now speaking Arabic who wanted to take part in the Mitchell Scholarship program to learn about the Northern Ireland peace process,” Vargo said.

Benjamin Cote of Scarborough is a Mitchell Scholar who studied peace and conflict studies at the University of Ulster in Derry/Londonderry, Northern Ireland. He wrote an opinion piece in the BDN in 2012 to ask the state department to restore the eliminated funding, saying the program opened doors for Mainers and had a positive effect on wider foreign policy.

“All this … value comes from a program run by two staff members, at a cost representing a minuscule portion of the Department of State’s budget,” he wrote. “The federal government is currently facing many tough calls on which programs to fund. But this one is not a tough call at all.”

Vargo said Mitchell continues to play an active role in the program. BDN efforts to contact the former lawmaker, who was overseas, were unsuccessful.

“One way or another, whether it’s in Dublin or London or Belfast or here, he’s seen almost every single class [of recipients],” Vargo said of the former Senate Majority Leader. “He loves the program and wants to support it. He’s also helping me reach out and try to find that potential donor.”

Vargo said the next class of scholars will be chosen this weekend. She is due to fly to Ireland next week to help prepare Thanksgiving dinner for the current class.

All four members of Maine’s Congressional delegation expressed their disappointment this week with the decision to cut funding for the scholarship program.

“The program builds good will and is also a fitting tribute to former Maine Senator George Mitchell’s role in bringing peace to Northern Ireland,” Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King said in a joint statement issued Thursday morning. “We will continue to work together to support the Mitchell Scholarship program.”

Pingree said the scholarship honors Mitchell’s historic work to bring peace to Ireland and helps keep the bonds and cultural ties between the U.S. and Ireland strong.

“It’s a worthwhile investment, and I’m sorry that budget cuts forced the State Department to end support,” she said.

Ben Goodman, a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, said the Mitchell program has a “reputation as being one of the most competitive, efficient and cost-effective international educational exchange programs. The congressman believes that State’s response is misguided, at best.”


Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.