SOUTH PORTLAND — Getting a college education wasn’t all that important when he was growing up in Waterville in the 1940s, former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell said Friday at the Mitchell Institute’s annual dinner.

Even people who didn’t have high school diplomas could get jobs and support themselves, he said.

“That is much more difficult to do today,” he said. “We are living through one of the greatest transitions in human history.”

Advances in communication and technology have made knowledge and skills essential, he said. That’s why it’s so important to reduce barriers to college.

Friday’s Mitchell Institute Fall Gala, a $200-a-plate dinner at the Portland Marriott at Sable Oaks, raised $150,000 for college scholarships for students throughout Maine.

Every year, the institute awards a $5,000 scholarship to a senior in each of Maine’s 130 high schools. Since Mitchell founded it in 1995, the scholarship fund has awarded $8 million to 1,800 students.

Friday’s event was a huge money-maker for the effort because Mitchell’s friend Tom Walsh, who owns the hotel, donated the ballroom and the dinner. About 500 people attended, including many of the state’s leading political figures and business leaders.

Mitchell, who helped to broker peace in Northern Ireland and served for six years as the U.S. Senate majority leader, said last year, “This scholarship fund is the best thing that I have ever done.”

Besides giving money, the institute helps its scholars find summer jobs, connects them with mentors, and encourages community service to deepen their ties to Maine. Nearly 70 percent of its college graduates now live and work in Maine.

Those leadership development and networking opportunities are more crucial than the money, said Alex Cornell du Houx, who was a scholarship winner and now chairs the Mitchell Scholarship Alumni Council.

Terri Bastarache, 18, a Mitchell scholar who graduated from Gorham High School in June and is now attending the University of Maine, said the scholarship gave her confidence.

“It means a lot,” she said. “It means they believe in me.”

Criteria for the scholarship are: academic performance and potential, a record of community service and financial need.

The institute awards the scholarships in the spring. On Friday, it gave special recognition to 15 scholars and former scholars.

They were recognized for various achievements or qualities, such as overcoming obstacles, or showing leadership, compassion and perseverance.

This year’s recipients of the institute’s Pioneer Scholar Awards are Sam Portera of Limestone Community School, Nate Kinney of Mount Abram High School, Alex Cornell du Houx of Carrabec High School, Mallory Plummer of Morse High School, Teresa Cooper of Nokomis High School, Ameena Khan of Waterville High School, Kim Lim of South Portland High School, Jaclyn McCurry of Biddeford High School, Kaylie Thornton of Carrabec High School, Terri Bastarache of Gorham High School, Patrick Gallagher of Telstar High School, Hannah Belanger of Upper Kennebec Valley High School, Casandra Engstrom of Ellsworth High School, Andy Estrada of Hall-Dale High School, and Kimberly Dao of Thornton Academy.

 

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at: [email protected]