Heads up, Unity College. Allison Liberge has her eye on you.
“Instead of living there, I’m just going to get an apartment,” Allison, scholarship firmly in hand, said last week. “If you live on campus, it costs a lot more money. And I’m not saying I don’t have the money, because I do. I have a college savings account.
“Yes, it would be easier to live on campus and get to my classes. But it would probably be better to live in an apartment – maybe with my friends, maybe with a pet or something. If I live on campus, there’s like a lot of people and if roommates have friends, then their friends all will come over and their friends’ friends will come over and … I could just have it way easier if I just stayed in an apartment.”
Allison is 10.
She’s one of 42 third- and fourth-graders from Westbrook honored on Wednesday with $100 Maine College Aspirations Scholarships by the Maine College Circle. Over the past 15 years, the Yarmouth-based nonprofit has nudged more than 60,000 kids from 115 Maine communities toward the dream of higher education, starting as early as Grade 3.
This year, almost half of Westbrook’s 400 or so third- and fourth-graders took part in workshops and wrote application essays for the scholarships.
Wednesday’s ceremony at the Westbrook Performing Arts Center, attended by fellow students, teachers and scores of proud parents and grandparents, mirrored the Academy Awards: Winners’ names and faces flashed on the big screen while Bob Stuart, executive director of the Maine College Circle, summoned each student down into the spotlight with a lengthy recitation of his or her accomplishments, and, in more than a few cases, short lists of target schools.
“Before they called my name, I almost had a heart attack,” confessed Allison. She’s a fourth-grader at the Oxford-Cumberland Canal School, where Cara Colgan, her teacher, has called her “Spectacular Allison” since the first day of school last September.
Her mother, Ashley Clark, took time off from her shift at Dunkin’ Donuts on Main Street in Westbrook to be there, flowers in hand, when Allison’s name was finally called.
“Allison’s had a pretty rough life,” Clark later said, fighting back tears.
We won’t go into details here, other than to say Allison, her two sisters and their mom live in a small apartment in Westbrook. Her father, as Allison put it, “is out of the picture right now. And so I am trying to make my mom happy.”
She wants to be a veterinarian because, as she wrote in her essay, she once rescued a baby bird that had fallen from a tree and tried, with the help of Mom and her grandmother, to nurse it back to health. The bird lived for only a few hours.
“We didn’t really have a lot. We just had a cardboard box and the internet,” Allison recalled. “But if I become a veterinarian, I’ll have a bunch of things like medicines … and animals that aren’t wild. I’ll also have my brain. And knowledge.”
Allison first heard about Unity College during a video presentation on Maine schools.
“Me and my friend were like, ‘Hmm … let’s just write that down,’ ” she recalled. “There’s things you can do there with animals and it’s really about nature and a lot of outdoorsy stuff.”
Third-grader Leeroy Pepper, 9, wants to become a zookeeper via the State University of New York System. He even titled his essay “Leeroy the Zookeeper.”
The moment Leeroy heard his name called on Wednesday, he took off at a dead sprint for the stage – much to the delight of the audience.
You see, when master of ceremonies Stuart urged the kids not to dally when their names were called, Leeroy took it to mean get down there pronto or no scholarship.
“So that’s all I thought about,” he said. “I’m never going to change my mind from being a zookeeper.”
He’s already got the course titles down: mammalogy, herpetology, animal development, aquatic entomology, behavioral biology …
But what about interacting daily with lions and tigers? Might that not give him pause?
“Lions and tigers? I ain’t scared,” replied Leeroy.
So what does scare him?
Fellow third-grader Abdul Abdullahi, 8, has two goals: One is to become a doctor. The other is to work as an interpreter, just like his father, who immigrated to this country from Somalia and now works in the Lewiston school system while also studying at the University of New England.
“Imagine me being a doctor,” Abdul wrote in his essay. “I know I can do it.”
Abdul has his sights set on, among other schools, Yale University. But he had a question.
“So if you’re a kid, can you go to a college and have a tour?” he asked.
Yes. And the scholarship money, raised through local businesses and such corporate sponsors as Unum, Dead River Co., University Credit Union, United Way of Greater Portland and the University of New England, can be used to defray the travel costs.
“Good,” said Abdul. “I’ve got about … nine more years.”
Then there’s Benjamin Augustino. While only 8 and still in the third grade at Canal School, he knows this much: He loves football and sees himself someday crushing it with the University of Miami Hurricanes.
Benjamin’s inspiration? Trevor Bates, who played for the Westbrook Blue Blazes, the University of Maine Black Bears and now the New England Patriots.
“Trevor Bates is a name known by kids in Westbrook,” wrote Benjamin in his essay. “Someday I hope I could be like him and kids will know my name too.”
But Benjamin’s ambitions extend far beyond football. He also wants to become an architect and, along the way, enroll in the University of Miami’s Reserve Officer Training Corps “so I could serve our country.”
Benjamin’s presentation included a letter from the Westbrook High School coaching staff, who caught wind that he wants to follow in the footsteps of linebacker Bates.
“Trevor is an inspiration to us all,” the coaches wrote. “And now, so are you.”
And so it went, for two solid hours. Applause … teary-eyed parents … more applause … lofty dreams … and underlying it all, the realization that college is an achievable goal for any Maine kid who dares to think big.
Like many hardworking parents, Ashley Clark, Allison’s mom, had to rush back to her job at Dunkin’ Donuts after watching her daughter, poised and oh-so-prepared, accept the first of what undoubtedly will be many honors.
But Clark will not soon forget how it felt to watch an entire community tell Allison what she’s been telling her little girl all along.
“I’m a single mom. I have two other daughters besides her. And I work my butt off. And sometimes it’s really early nights for us,” Clark said. “But I tell her, ‘You know, Allison, if you keep getting good grades, you can learn your way through college. You can get scholarships on scholarships. Don’t focus on the price. Don’t let that hold you back.’ ”
As for the Maine College Circle, what can she say?
“I can’t express enough how grateful I am that they have this program,” Clark said. “I think it’s wonderful. A mother can never have too much help.”
Bill Nemitz can be contacted at: