WASHINGTON – By the time Patricia Marshall enrolled at Colby College in the fall of 1990, she had endured a childhood of poverty that likely would have shocked most of her classmates.
She had lived most of her years in rural Maine without indoor plumbing. To escape the fighting and abuse in her home, she had turned a van parked in the yard into her study room and her bedroom, even for the cold winter nights.
But experiences in the Upward Bound program that brought low-income high school students to the University of Maine for summer sessions showed Marshall that she actually had an upper hand, of sorts, over many of her new peers at Colby.
“My computer skills were solid, I was a strong self-advocate and I had been fully empowered to spend a summer in Europe,” Marshall told an audience at a congressional hearing this week. “I was well poised for success at Colby and beyond due to programs that wrapped their arms around me and gave me the support that I needed at a critical and very vulnerable time in my life.”
Marshall, who’s now a university professor and administrator in Massachusetts, said a large part of her transformation is attributable to a suite of programs — known as TRIO programs — that is now fighting for a shrinking pool of federal resources.
With Congress debating a new budget and whether to restore funding that was lost to across-the-board federal budget cuts earlier this year, she and other supporters of TRIO were on Capitol Hill this week to urge lawmakers to protect the programs.
It’s an uphill fight, given the stark realities in Washington.
“Cutting this (program) will not help kids succeed and will leave them further behind and leave our country further behind,” said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who co-chairs the Congressional TRIO Caucus with Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine. “Programs like this will not continue to exist without people who will fight, and fight hard, for them.”
Maine operates 21 TRIO programs, serving about 6,700 students. Sixteen of the programs are run through the University of Maine System. They range from Upward Bound and Talent Search — two programs aimed at young, college-bound students — to educational opportunity centers for adults and college programs for veterans.
Since fiscal year 2011, TRIO programs nationwide have lost more than $125 million in federal funding. Those losses have forced the closure of 125 Upward Bound programs — including one in Orono — and 42 post-baccalaureate programs.
Karen Hadley Heim, associate director of the Talent Search and Educational Opportunity Center programs at UMaine, said federal funding for TRIO was flat for many years before the budget cuts of the past three years.
“So the 5.2 percent cut (this year) is going to hit TRIO programs pretty hard,” Heim said after Wednesday’s briefing. “And it is an investment program.”
Growing up north of Bangor in the small town of Bradford, Marshall said, she lacked many basic comforts, not to mention role models to encourage her to pursue a college education.
Before participating in Upward Bound during high school, Marshall had never lived for an extended time with indoor plumbing. She and her mother drew water from a hand pump outside their small trailer and used an outhouse, weather permitting.
They eventually moved into a larger trailer — still without plumbing — but were joined by her abusive father. Marshall said she decided during middle school that her only ticket out of poverty was education, so she devoted herself to reading and her school work.
When her parents’ fighting became too much to bear, Marshall said, she moved into the van in her front yard and ran an extension cord to plug in a light. In the winter, she heaped piles of old sleeping bags on top of herself and her dog while they slept on an old mattress.
“And I still remember to this day the weight of those bags,” she said.
Marshall eventually was accepted into the Upward Bound residential program at UMaine, where she learned computer skills and valuable social and study skills. She credits the program and its mentors with helping her avoid pitfalls that often get in the way of young students from rural America.
Today, Marshall is a tenured professor of Spanish and interim associate vice president for academic affairs at Worcester State University in Massachusetts. She said she tries to “pay forward” TRIO’s investment in her by working extensively with students from less privileged backgrounds, and on improving college access and retention at the school.
“The cycle of poverty has been broken and I am living proof that TRIO works,” she told the group.
The programs face plenty of competition for funding, including from many other programs for low-income Americans.
Collins recently helped lead a bipartisan group of lawmakers who sent a letter to their colleagues who oversee TRIO funding, urging them to appropriate money to the programs.
“We recognize that the current fiscal climate represents unprecedented challenges,” the letter reads. “It is for that reason that we must make strategic choices that prepare our citizenry for the jobs of tomorrow and preserve equal opportunity within our society.”
Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at: