For Madison Gouzie, the decision to go to college wasn’t an easy one. His parents hadn’t gone to college, and he didn’t know anything about the admissions process or financial aid.

“College isn’t always the next logical step for kids in Maine,” said Gouzie, a graduate of Westbrook High School.

Though Gouzie managed to apply and get accepted to Colby College on his own, after being awarded a scholarship from the Mitchell Institute, he not only had an extra $4,000 to help pay for tuition, but also a reliable resource to help get him through his first years. In the fall, Gouzie will be entering his junior year at Colby.

Gouzie is one of hundreds of Maine students who have benefited from the scholarships and mentoring provided by the Mitchell Institute. Founded by former Sen. George J. Mitchell in 1995, the Mitchell Institute aims to change the college climate in Maine by helping students get to college through financial assistance, guiding them into their careers through help finding jobs and internships and encouraging them to give back to their home state.

On Sunday, about 80 recent high school graduates and their families from around Maine gathered in Orono to be welcomed into the group of scholars. In 2007, a total of 130 Mitchell Scholars were chosen for their academic potential, their commitment to community service and their financial need. They receive $1,250 a year – increased last year from $1,000 – for four years.

“My most fervent hope is that you will find something in this world that is important,” Mitchell told the newly named scholars Sunday. “Find a worthwhile objective to which you will commit yourself.”

For Mitchell, who negotiated peace talks in Ireland and served as the U.S. Senate majority leader, that objective was the formation of the Mitchell Institute.

“Nothing is more important than the development of this program,” he said.

Stanis Moody-Roberts, of Cape Elizabeth, couldn’t stop smiling as he took in information and advice from the institute’s staff and older scholars Sunday. He said he had not been fully aware of the extent of opportunities the scholarship would provide him.

“I’m extremely honored,” said Moody-Roberts, who plans on taking classes in environmental studies and politics at Middlebury College in Vermont in the fall. Though Moody-Roberts is one of handful of students awarded a scholarship to go to school out of state, he said he will come back to Maine after school.

“I really feel like it’s my home,” he said. “I’m glad they have this program that encourages students to stay in Maine.”

Getting students to college

The program’s efforts aren’t just to change Maine one scholar at a time. The institute is also working to find out why Maine students aren’t going to college and what can be done about it. Last month, the institute released a study called, “From High School to College: Removing Barriers for Maine Students.”

The research was inspired by a different study by the Maine Department of Education. It showed that, while there has been an increase in the number of Maine high school graduates who intend on going to college, fewer are actually enrolling.

In 2005, 70 percent of Maine high school graduates intended to go to college, up from 64 percent in 2001. However, within a year, only 57 percent of the graduates enrolled, which was down from 62 percent in 2001. These trends had the staff at the Mitchell Institute asking why.

By surveying high school educators, parents and students from around the state, the Mitchell Institute found that all three groups played significant roles in whether students attended college – and they’re not all doing their part.

According to the study, most high school educators do not think all students are ready for college when they graduate from high school. Students, themselves, are also apprehensive because they do not believe they are prepared academically. And parents, the resource students say are most helpful in preparing for college or a career, aren’t knowledgeable enough in the financial aid process.

The Mitchell Institute made recommendations to remove these barriers, such as broadening the notion of college beyond four-year institutions and starting the college planning process earlier.

Increasing awareness

Gouzie said most of the kids in his class didn’t go on to college, partly because it didn’t seem possible, and partly because it simply wasn’t an option they considered.

Leah Hughes, a 2007 graduate of Gorham High School who will be going to Bowdoin later this month as a freshman, said many students aren’t aware of much of the financial assistance that’s available to them. Hughes’s parents also never went to college, and she considers herself low income, but her parents never gave her the option of not going to college.

Unfortunately for Hughes, she’s footing the entire bill herself, and the Mitchell scholarship was an important check to pay for classes. Nonetheless, despite its namesake’s high profile, it’s not the easiest scholarship to find.

“I think the Mitchell Institute doesn’t make itself well known in high school,” Hughes said. Her mother, who had experience writing grants for West School, the rehabilitative public school in Portland, told her about the scholarship, but otherwise she hadn’t heard of it. She was hard pressed to find other scholarships to support her education.

“I think scholarships need to make themselves known, rather than just putting things out there,” Hughes said, suggesting, like Gouzie, that many kids unaware of programs like the Mitchell Institute simply won’t have a clue where to turn to next.

Making schools ‘great’

Beyond what students and their families can do to prepare for college, the Mitchell Institute believes the state needs to work on ensuring high schools are giving all students a rigorous educational experience, a process the institute has already helped start.

Sharing a suite with the Mitchell Institute in Portland’s Monument Square is the Great Schools Partnership, which is supported by a $10 million grant from Bill and Melinda Gates in order to strengthen secondary education in Maine.

According to J. Duke Albanese, former Maine education commissioner and co-executive director of the Great Schools Partnership, the organization is working to establish rigor, equity and personalized learning in Maine high schools in order to prepare every Maine student for college.

Research done at the Mitchell Institute has given guidance to the Great Schools Partnership, but, Albanese said, it is going to take more than research and grants to change Maine schools.

“It takes the whole community to get behind the schools,” he said. And by keeping Mitchell Scholars in their home state, those communities are more likely to move forward.

“My prediction and observation is that these Mitchell Scholars are going to be the leaders of Maine,” Albanese said, “and they’re not going to forget the Mitchell Institute gave them a hand.”

Getting scholars to graduate

The Mitchell Institute has proven successful in getting its scholars through college, with a graduation rate of more than 90 percent, according to Colleen Quint, the institute’s executive director. Throughout the state, she said, only about 66 percent of students who go to college graduate.

Though some may speculate that the rate reflects the quality of students chosen for scholarships, Bonnie Titcomb Lewis, director of advancement at the Mitchell Institute, said many of these students wouldn’t otherwise have the finances or the right guidance to make it all the way through without the Mitchell Institute.

“It’s the support, and the scholars will tell you that,” Lewis said.

Loren Bowley, of Hollis, praised the Mitchell Institute Monday for not only the financial assistance but for other support it provides scholars.

“It meant while I was in college I could focus on studies,” said Bowley, who graduated from the University of Maine in 2004 and is now a ninth-grade English teacher at Traip Academy in Kittery.

“They go above and beyond to make connections with scholars,” she said.

Students giving back

Now that the institute has some 800 graduates, its effect should start taking hold.

“A large, large number of them are living and working here in Maine and contributing to our state,” Mitchell said Sunday.

According to Quint, it is through a “ripple effect” from the Mitchell Scholars that the reality for all students in Maine to go to college will change.

“Each individual scholar is the pebble you throw in the pond,” Quint said. Through community service and their careers, Mitchell Scholars will ideally have the same effect on other students as the Mitchell Institute did on them.

“We see it in applications all the time,” Quint said. “There is a real earnestness in wanting to give back to the community, whether they start a new business, bring a new idea to their company or serve as a mentor.”

According to Quint, Mitchell Scholars as a whole log more than 17,000 hours of community service every year.

“They want to help younger brothers and sisters and friends,” Quint said. “It’s the things these kids do as young people and young professionals that lifts the whole program.”

Planting seeds

For Gouzie, the program has made a difference in his family simply by setting a new precedent. His 13-year-old brother, Lazio, is now thinking about college.

“I think I definitely planted the seed in my brother’s mind,” Gouzie said.

But for Gouzie, the fact that his parents didn’t go to college made the process foreign to him “to the extent that I felt ignorant,” he said. The seed and drive to go to college, for Gouzie, was “less about what I wanted to do, and more about where I didn’t want to be.”

Gouzie relied on his high school guidance counselor to get through the process and to find the Mitchell scholarship. He also relied on his being an A student, being involved in student government, community service and athletics to secure the scholarship.

According to Lewis, students growing up without college-educated parents is “the nature of the beast in Maine.” But just as there are disadvantages Maine students face, the effort of the Mitchell Institute and the Great Schools Partnership is more support than what other states have.

“Something is happening here that is not happening in other places,” Lewis said. “The idea is to change lives and to change them in a way that makes Maine more attractive.

Lewis said the Mitchell Institute provides another family for its scholars to rely on, without interfering with their families at home.

“To call it a scholarship program is to call an automobile, steel, aluminum and rubber,” Lewis said.

Between scholarship money, career support, research and a devoted staff, the Mitchell Institute, Lewis said, has taken on a life of its own.

“There’s a richness here that I’ve never seen anywhere else,” she said.

Staff writer Gordon Lane also contributed to this report.

Institute attempts to change college climateInstitute attempts to change college climate

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: