PORTLAND – Many students at Riverton Elementary School already have their sights set on college, thanks to an innovative scholarship program that aims to inspire early interest in higher education.

Fifteen of them received $100 scholarships during an awards ceremony on Monday afternoon, sponsored by cPort Credit Union and Maine College Circle, a Yarmouth nonprofit that promotes access to higher education.

Stephen Brennan, a third-grader sporting a blond buzz cut, wants to be a police officer and plans to study criminal justice at the University of Southern Maine.

Natasha Chhom, a fourth-grader wearing silver-sequined shoes, wants to be a fashion designer and plans to attend fashion school in New York City or San Francisco.

And Drew McInnis, a fifth-grader with an eager grin, wants to be a video game designer and plans to attend DigiPen Institute of Technology in Redmond, Wash.

“His teacher says he is a very motivated student, and I say he will be a great VGD,” said Bob Stuart, director of the Maine College Circle, in presenting a scholarship to Drew.

This is the fourth year that Riverton has participated in the College Aspirations Scholarship Program. It now includes the Hussey, Gilbert, Farrington and Lincoln elementary schools in Augusta and the new Ocean Avenue Elementary School in Portland, which will hold a similar ceremony Wednesday.

The premise of the voluntary program is simple: Stuart visits third-, fourth- and fifth-grade classrooms at each school and talks about going to college. He asks students about their interests, describes careers they could pursue and suggests colleges and universities they might attend after high school.

“For some students in urban and rural Maine, they’re not hearing that conversation at home,” Stuart said before the ceremony. “Our goal is to provide information earlier to all students so they can recognize their own potential and raise their aspirations. At this age, we have a lot of video game designers, veterinarians and fashion designers.”

With help from their teachers, the students who choose to participate in the program fill out scholarship applications and write essays explaining their interests and where they would like to go to college.

This year, 165 Riverton students submitted applications and essays — nearly 100 percent participation, according to Principal Nancy Kopack. Each year, five students from each of the three grades receive $100 scholarships. The students are expected to use the money for college, but they aren’t bound by their grade-school aspirations.

Many students take the experience very seriously, showing joy when they win and sincere disappointment when they don’t.

When Superintendent Jim Morse asked the audience of Riverton students where they were going after high school, they all shouted in unison, “College!”

Dylan Griffin, a Riverton student who won a scholarship in 2008, visited Maine Maritime Academy, the school he hopes to attend, and was granted a conditional acceptance, according to cPort Credit Union President Gene Ardito.

Yung Ying, father of Joshua Ying, a Riverton fourth-grader who won a scholarship this year and last year, said the program transformed his son.

Ying, who manages the Panda Garden Restaurant, said he and his wife, Ashley Tran, a registered nurse, talk to their son about going to college, but the scholarship program has made the possibility more real. Now Joshua — who loves to swim and enjoyed a recent trip to the New England Aquarium in Boston — is scoping out colleges with great swim teams and great marine biology programs.

“He’s got a ways to go, but the scholarship program really put things into focus for him,” Ying said after Monday’s awards ceremony. “It reinforces what we say at home.”

CPort Credit Union spent about $20,000 this year on the College Aspirations Scholarship Program, Ardito said, not counting the time employees spend selecting scholarship winners and organizing the awards ceremonies. In addition to funding the scholarships, the credit union provided T-shirts for all students who participated, framed certificates for the winners and flowers for their teachers.

“This is a special day,” Ardito said after the ceremony. “These kids are gleaming in front of their peers. They are all winners for starting the college planning process at such an early age.”

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

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