May 20, 2013

Portland program clears path to college for immigrants

City schools provide guidance for those unfamiliar with the complex system of SATs, student aid and more.

By Tom Bell
Staff Writer

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Dejaunie Madourie, 14, a Portland High freshman, works on English homework last week with the help of AmeriCorps worker Erica Small, right, as part of an after-school program called Make it Happen!

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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Deering High School junior Sahara Hassan, 17, at home with her father, Mohamed Hassan, said it’s unlikely she would have done anything about college if not for Make it Happen!

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

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Dejaunie Madourie, 14, a Portland High School freshman who moved from Jamaica to Maine with her mother less than two years ago, said she was impressed with how much flexibility college students have to arrange their schedule and course load.

"I could imagine myself being there," she said.

Dejaunie, whose mother works as a hotel chambermaid, said the Make It Happen! volunteers have encouraged her to take honors-level courses next year. She spends four or five hours every afternoon doing homework in Room 2011, the classroom set aside for the program.

Even in an accepting place like Portland High, immigrant students can feel like outsiders and embarrassed about asking for help, said Todd Remage-Healey, 62, a retired math teacher who volunteers to tutor students in the program two afternoons a week.

"In this program they can be themselves," he said. "They feel accepted and cared for and that people want them to do well."

The program's staff and volunteers help students select a college, apply for financial aid and arrange for college tours and interviews.

Many immigrant families don't understand that their children can attend college and get financial help, said Gary Canter, owner of College Placement Services in Portland.

"The price tag is often what keeps them away from even applying," he said.

The complexity of the process -- rather than a student's academic potential -- serves as a "gatekeeper" that determines who goes to college and who doesn't, he said.

In reality, there is a lot of opportunity and financial help available for ambitious, hard-working students from poor families, Canter said.

"If a kid is motivated, there is a way," he said.

Sometimes, the staff must persuade parents to let their children leave home for college. Many immigrant families are close-knit and protective of their children -- particularly daughters -- and don't want to see them go far from home.

One father, for example, refused to let his daughter attend an elite private university in Massachusetts, even though she had received a full scholarship. Canter, who had volunteered to help the girl with her college applications, said that he, Cronin and an interpreter visited the girl's father and successfully persuaded him to let her attend.

Ironically, while the college application process can seem intimidating, many immigrant families have already overcome a bigger obstacle -- finding their way to the United States. Faizal Alwakeel and her 19-year-old daughter, Melak Al Qayyar, for example, fled from Iraq to the Ukraine before obtaining refugee status that allowed them to move to Maine in 2009.

Still, even though Melak earned top grades at Deering, the idea of college for her seems impossibly expensive, Alwakeel said,

But she made it. Melak, who graduated from Deering High last year, received a scholarship to study at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.

"I want to say, spread this program though the whole country because many people need this help," Alwakeel said.


Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at


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Additional Photos

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Faizal Alwakeel, right, said college for her daughter Melak Al Qayyar, 19, seemed to be financially out of reach. But Make it Happen! helped get Melak a scholarship to Clark University.

Tim Greenway/Staff Photographer


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