In many ways it’s the perfect storm. The economy is in a slump, state budgets are ultra tight and more people than ever understand the benefits of post-secondary education. As a result, Southern Maine Community College in South Portland is experiencing ever-increasing demand for its programs just as additional funding from the state is tough to come by.

On Thursday night the college threw a party under a tent at its gorgeous oceanfront campus to thank the business partners who have made it possible for the college to continue to meet the work force training needs of the local community in these tough economic times.

“If you look around campus, you’ll see all our programs are up-to-date,” President James Ortiz told the crowd. “And that’s because of you.”

The college has a commitment to small class sizes and as a result many of its most popular degree programs have a cap on the number of students who can enroll. Ortiz explained that the college, which expects enrollment to top 7,000 this year, has to turn away roughly 2,000 students each year.

“Right now enrollment is up 17 percent this year,” Kaylene Waindle, the college’s dean of advancement, explained to me. “We’re in a down economy and enrollment is up and funding is down. We really wanted to thank the people who are bridging the gap for us.”

To illustrate the demand for the college’s program’s, Waindle told me that “our electrical degree program filled in 30 minutes this year. Our nursing program has a three year waiting list.”

When I had a chance to chat with Ortiz before his remarks, he explained that the emphasis on business partnerships began in 2002, when the college was forced to close its automotive program. Ortiz then met with the Maine Automotive Dealers Association, whose members pledged more than half a million dollars to develop a new state-of-the-art automotive program, which now has 90 students. Similar partnerships followed this successful joint venture.

During his remarks, Ortiz presented awards in the form of photographs of Spring Point Light to honor those who’ve been particularly helpful to the college.

Mark Duval of the Breakwater Daybreak Rotary Club and Sybil Riemensnider of the South Portland-Cape Elizabeth Rotary Club accepted awards on behalf of their organizations. The two clubs work together to host the annual International Food Festival at SMCC, with all the proceeds going to support scholarships for international and multicultural students.

Chris Emmons, the president of Gorham Savings Bank, accepted an award on behalf of the bank, which has been extremely supportive of the college’s business department. State Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, whom Ortiz called “our Godfather,” received the final award for his tireless work to secure space on the former Brunswick Naval Air Station for the new SMCC Midcoast Campus, which is expected to open next year.

Carol Taylor of Disability RMS told me how her company received $28,000 from the Governor’s Training Initiative to allow the organization to hire and train 30 new employees. The training was done by SMCC.

“It’s all thanks to SMCC,” Taylor told me. “They suggested it to me and helped me fill out the paperwork.”

Another recipient of a Governor’s Training Initiative grant was Moody’s Collision Centers. The company is headed by Shawn Moody, who is running for governor as an independent, and was at the party with his wife, Chris Moody.

“What SMCC has offered us is the opportunity to take leadership and communications classes to allow our organization to grow,” Moody said. “The training is portable. It’s crucial when you’re growing an organization.”

Lynne Gaudette, chief administrative officer for Goodwill Industries of Northern New England, and Susan Smith, the organization’s head of human resources, told me about a new program the nonprofit is offering to its employees that allows them to enroll in classes at SMCC.

“It doesn’t need to be connected to their job,” Smith said. “It just needs to be their dream.”

The Portland and South Portland school systems are also partnering with the college.

“The community college system has a liberal arts program where the first two years can be transferred” to a four-year school, Portland Superintendent James Morse told me. “SMCC is part of the way we’re convincing kids to go to college.”

The collaboration is similar in South Portland.

“We have a joint program for college aspirations,” said South Portland’s Superintendent Suzanne Godin.

She said many students for whom English is not their first language have been able to do early college course work through SMCC.

Party guests also got to hear from SMCC student Ater Ater. Now in his second year in the school’s criminal justice program, Ater came to the U.S. as a child when his family fled civil war in Sudan. He attends SMCC on the James Angelo Memorial Scholarship, given in honor of a Mercy Hospital security guard who had hoped to pursue a criminal justice career before he was killed while on duty. This past summer Ater participated in the Portland Police Department’s summer cadet program.

“The teachers here are organized and always open to questions,” Ater said. “I ask a lot of questions. Because of the education I’m receiving here, I’m able to take my textbook knowledge and see how it’s applied at the Portland Police Department.”

Ater concluded his remarks by encouraging party guests to make monetary donations to the college.

When Ortiz thanked Ater for his remarks, he said, “He’s going to be a great president because he knows how to make the ask.” 

Staff Writer Avery Yale Kamila can be contacted at 791-6297 or at:

akamila@pressherald.com