Imagine it’s your first day of college. You feel lucky to be able to attend on a modest budget. You add up the cost for your first-semester textbooks and panic.

You will need $2,000 just for books! What do you do?

If you are a Gauvin Scholar, you can call the Aroostook Aspirations Initiative — a support system for a growing number of Aroostook County students.

Ray and Sandy Gauvin have a long history of providing scholarships for Presque Isle High School students, but when they decided to expand the concept to include students from all Aroostook County high schools, they couldn’t imagine the amount of support the new program would be able to give to students and receive from the community.

“It’s gone beyond all expectations,” Ray Gauvin said recently. “The number of scholarships awarded has grown to 50 during the first three years. We continue getting support from the business community.”

Founded in 2011, Aroostook Aspirations offers $2,000 scholarships to students from each of the county’s 16 high schools who have academic promise, exhibit financial need and plan to attend one of The County’s four institutions of higher education: the Presque Isle campus of Husson University, Northern Maine Community College in Presque Isle, or one of the University of Maine System campuses in Fort Kent and Presque Isle. The first awards were made in the spring of 2014, targeting first-generation college students who might not otherwise have been able to attend college.

Today, Aroostook Aspirations is able to award more than one scholarship per school, and students in the first class are serving as mentors for younger scholars.

Gauvin scholars are required to attend a “Night with the Stars Gala” in the fall, where they are introduced to the community, and to participate in scholar weekends during the year, where they come together to hone both college preparatory and career skills.

The program also connects students to local businesses that might become their future employers, helping to build The County work force and to keep young people in the area.

“Our scholars are our best ambassadors,” said Ray Gauvin. “When scholars get together, networks form immediately and they communicate throughout the year.”

Sandy Gauvin said the mentoring piece has grown, providing “skills to navigate the waters of going to college so they won’t be so turbulent,” skills such as “learning styles, issues to expect and knowing they can call for help” — the kind of help needed when faced with a problem such as $2,000 worth of textbooks.

“The scholarship is the gateway leading scholars into the support program,” Sandy Gauvin said. “Tremendous bonding occurs during the scholar weekends. They gain access to each other, to us and to community leaders; they help each other. It’s a huge support system.”

She recalled a student who was convinced no one liked her when she entered the program. A year later, the student approached her at a scholar gathering.

“I didn’t recognize her; she was transformed,” Sandy Gauvin said.

The student glowed as she told Sandy Gauvin, “I have friends. People like me.”

It was evident as she demonstrated the confidence so many scholars acquire through the program.

“It’s very heartwarming,” Ray Gauvin said. “We have exceptional kids from hard backgrounds. The program encourages them to continue their education and not give up.”

Training during the second year focuses on entrepreneurial and career skills. Students become comfortable talking to business people, who are invited to speak at scholar weekends. They make contacts that often lead to internships.

“The community is realizing that by helping kids we are helping the business community,” Sandy Gauvin said. “They are crying for an educated work force. Internships enable employers to train workers.”

Being a Gauvin Scholar led to a full-time job for Kerrigan Arnett of Easton, a business and accounting major at UMPI with an interest in hospital work.

“I got the job because of the Gauvin scholarship,” Arnett said. “The business owner knew about the scholars.”

She started as an assistant for Center Transport/Center Logistics at Center Farms in Easton and worked her way up to dispatcher.

“I really love where I’m at now. I didn’t expect the dispatching job,” she said.

Personal health issues and health crises faced by several family members threatened to knock her off course after a strong start at UMPI. But she overcame the obstacles and earned all As.

“Kerrigan was driven,” said Kristen Wells, executive director of Aroostook Aspirations, identifying Arnett as an example of the program’s effort to match scholars with appropriate work experiences. “We have two years to tie them in and show them the opportunity here.”

After two years at a local college, Gauvin scholars may continue their education in The County, transfer to another institution or begin their careers — whatever path best leads to achieving their goals.

Of course, founders and staff members hope the strong alliances between students and businesses built through Aroostook Aspirations will lead to careers in Aroostook.

“It will take more than [Aroostook Aspirations],” Sandy Gauvin said. “The more support we can get, the more scholarships we can give and programs we can offer. We can’t do it alone. We need The County to help.”

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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 or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.