Very soon the leaves will turn, days and nights will become cooler, a new academic year will begin, and we at the University of Southern Maine will open our doors to welcome our first-time and returning students.

USM’s 9,700 students form a highly diverse community of scholars and practitioners. They come from rural and urban communities, from both Maine and well beyond. They range in age from 17 to older adults with an average age of nearly 27.

Some attend part time, others full time, depending on their schedules and responsibilities outside the classroom. Some are graduate students and many are undergraduates.

This array of students is on its way to becoming Maine’s next generation of artists, businesspeople, lawyers, nurses, public servants, scientists and teachers, joining more than 25,000 USM alumni who live and work here in Maine.

Amy Landry of Portland, for example, was recently appointed communications manager of HealthInfoNet, the statewide health information exchange organization.

Landry, who has several years of experience in health care communications, earned her USM undergraduate degree in media studies in 2004, and this spring earned her master’s in health policy and management from the USM Muskie School.

The contributions of USM alumni to the public sector are well documented, especially in education.

Patrick Hartnett of Hebron, who earned his master’s in educational leadership in 2004, was named Maine’s High School Principal of the Year for 2009 while serving at Leavitt Area High School in Turner.

Gloria Noyes of Westbrook received her master’s degree in literacy education in 1998 and was named Maine’s Teacher of the Year for 2009 while serving as a fifth-grade teacher at Congin School in Westbrook.

USM Muskie School graduates Greg Williams and Brett Richardson won the 2009 USM Student Business Plan Competition and established the local business Organic Alchemy Composting.

The company collects food waste from local establishments and converts it to high-quality compost for retail sale. Greg first came up with the idea in an economics class at USM, and teamed up with Brett, who has a keen interest in innovative green business opportunities.

Julie Balistreri of Turner earned her degree in natural and applied sciences from USM’s Lewiston-Auburn College.

Before graduating in 2009, she researched the health effects of wood stove emissions, served as an intern with the state Department of Environmental Protection, and attended a summer conference on the human genome project at the National Institutes of Health.

Julie has carved out a successful career in management at Bedard Health Care Pharmacy in Lewiston.

Thousands of USM graduates have discovered that their opportunities have broadened because they hold the bachelor’s and graduate degrees needed to succeed in this knowledge-based economy. Our university focuses like a laser beam on providing students the skills and habits of mind needed for life success.

As the only public comprehensive university in the most populous region of the state, we take seriously our mission to educate the region’s advanced work force.

This week, for example, we are holding the second of two, free public workshops so that people who are interested in pursuing a college degree can determine whether they can earn academic credit for knowledge and skills gained outside the classroom.

This program, known as Prior Learning Assessment, awards academic credit to some 1,000 USM students a year. It recognizes high-level experience, saves students time and money, and launches them into academic majors that complement their strengths and further their aspirations.

Director Joyce Lapping works individually and caringly with prospective students in order to understand how their work experience can translate into college credit.

USM is increasing its online learning opportunities and making them available to an increasing number of students.

Faculty members are creating cutting edge interdisciplinary opportunities that will prepare students for the new demands of 21st-century careers.

Do Maine citizens need at least a baccalaureate degree to take advantage of job opportunities in the state? According to recent information from the Maine Department of Labor, 46 percent of the jobs in Maine posted online in the first six months of 2010 required a baccalaureate degree.

A further 16 percent of jobs required a graduate or professional degree.

Put another way, more than 60 percent of job openings required baccalaureate degrees or higher.

It is time to take another look at USM. We have the academic programs and class schedules that work with you as you build your future through higher education.

Selma Botman is president of the University of Southern Maine. She can be contacted at:

[email protected]