New students at Eastern Maine Community College listen to orientation Wednesday afternoon. They are among the new students from the Bangor Area Recovery Network who participate in the introduction course and hope to take classes later. Credit: Gabor Degre

Melody Paul was having a bad day Wednesday after she heard about a friend’s death, but she knew she had something she could look forward to.

At 4:30 that afternoon, Paul, 38, and six other people from the Bangor Area Recovery Network showed up at Eastern Maine Community College to familiarize themselves with the campus as part of a college course they’re taking this winter.

A new collaboration between the community college and the recovery network offers people in recovery from drug addiction a chance to start pursuing a college education. Eastern Maine Community College is offering a free, one-credit course that orients students to the campus and helps them navigate the process of enrolling, applying for financial aid, locating housing and more.

“It was the highlight of the day,” Paul said. “It was the boost I needed.”

Credit: Gabor Degre

At the end of the three-month class, students should have a resume, portfolio, references and, most importantly, a desire to enroll, said Brian Welsh, a student navigator at EMCC who teaches the course once a week at the Bangor Area Recovery Network in Brewer, which offers peer-to-peer support for people in recovery. When they enroll at EMCC, Welsh plans to help course participants with financial aid, housing, food and other challenges they might face.

On Wednesday, Welsh brought seven students to campus to show them around. Course participants received their official student identification cards and were introduced to the college environment.

“Coming to college can be pretty intimidating for people,” Welsh said. “We wanted to make it as accessible as we can.”

All seven students on Wednesday were excited about the weekly class, and some said this was the push they needed to act on their desire to go to college.

“I’ve always wanted to go back to school, but I didn’t really have the confidence,” Hope Heath said. “The knowledge of what you need to do to get to college, like financial aid, is really exciting, and it makes me really happy.”

Everyone’s motivation to participate in the program was different.

For Robert Fickett, 39, peer support coordinator at the Bangor Area Recovery Network, it was about leading by action. Fickett is trained to help other people in recovery, and he wanted to emphasize the importance of education in recovery by enrolling in this course himself.

“I’m trying to empower people, so I want to walk the walk,” he said.

Thorin Walton, 44, said the class is a first step toward a career as a private investigator. Walton said he grew up on the streets, and he wants to help people living around drugs.

“There are things I’ve seen in addiction that I want to help prevent in other people,” he said.

His 19 months in recovery have led him to consider school as the best way to achieve his dream.

A free college course to help students in recovery become part of a college community is the kind of opportunity many in recovery are waiting for but aren’t always offered, said Pat Kimball, a Bangor Area Recovery Network board member.

“They are people who have a disease that they have to take care of, and they often end up places they never want to go,” said Kimball, who previously led the Bangor substance use treatment agency Wellspring. “The desire to get education is there, but they’re frightened.”

Christina Toche, 29, echoed Kimball’s comments.

“We think we’re looked down on,” she said. “Most of us obviously hit rock bottom before we got clean, and coming up from rock bottom and building up your confidence is hard.”

All but one of the seven course participants said they had served time behind bars. For a few, that was where their education restarted.

Paul took some courses offered in prison. Since her release, she has finished all the requirements for her high school equivalency diplomas over the past eight months.

“Recovery is all about bettering your life and your routine,” she said.