In my experience, when fire trucks show up at your party, you know you’ve cooked up a memorable get-together.

With this in mind, it’s unlikely any of the roughly 70 guests will soon forget the University of Southern Maine Foundation dinner held Oct. 28 to celebrate the successful completion of a fundraising campaign that brought in $890,000 to underwrite yearly scholarships for top students from across Maine.

Held in the penthouse function room of the Glickman Family Library, where the views of Portland’s skyline sparkled in the oversized windows, the invite-only affair began with a cocktail hour complete with jazz music from USM students Owen Conforte, Josh Francis and Joe Greene.

As guests chatted and sipped drinks, suddenly a high-pitched siren filled the air. I wasn’t alone in being transported back to my undergrad days as we evacuated down seven flights of stairs.

The firefighters, who arrived on the scene as we were exiting the building, quickly determined the alarm had been tripped by some harmless smoke and steam from the party’s caterers and we were given the go-ahead to re-enter the building and resume the festivities.

This unexpected excitement caused USM Foundation board chair Chris Robinson to launch us into the dinner portion of the party by asking, “Who ordered the well-done meal? Just curious. It’s done.”

As the laughs from the crowd quieted, Robinson went on to thank all who had given to the campaign, before reminding everyone that donations to the scholarship fund are “not a one-time deal. It’s an ongoing need.”

Later he was followed at the podium by Meg Weston, who is the president and CEO of the USM Foundation, which handles fundraising activities for the university.

Weston told the guests that the $5,000-a-year-for-four-years Presidential Scholarships and the $1,000-a-year-for-four-years Dean’s Scholarships are helping raise the profile of USM by attracting high-achieving Maine students in a variety of majors.

One of the scholars at the party was freshman Jacob White of Turner, who attended with his mother, Allyson White, and his stepfather, Joel Brooks. Jacob, a theater major who recently served as assistant stage manager for the university’s production of “Bug,” is the recipient of a Dean’s Scholarship.

His mother, who teaches at Lewiston Middle School, said Jacob’s sister will go away to college next year.

“The money is much appreciated,” Allyson said.

Beth Round, who heads USM’s honors program, told me that many of the school’s honor students rely on scholarships of one sort or another.

“We don’t have any of the students who are here tonight, but I’m recruiting them,” Round said.

A student I’m sure she’s trying to recruit is Presidential Scholarship recipient Kim Lim of South Portland, who with his family moved to Maine from Cambodia in 2008 and who had no English experience. Two years later, he graduated from South Portland High in the top 10 percent of his class.

When he spoke to the crowd, he talked about the recent history of Cambodia and the sacrifices his parents made so he and his siblings could obtain a better education.

“I have no clue how to pay them back,” said Lim, who is majoring in business. “The only thing I can do is study hard and do well in school. I know with my degree I can achieve so many wonderful things. ‘Thank you’ does not seem like enough for me, but I hope you can understand the appreciation in my heart.”

During dinner, I had the good fortune to be seated at the same table with Lim, where we were joined by Robinson, his wife, Maggie Robinson, Rep. Mary Nelson, Kenneth Nelson and Lim’s South Portland teacher Allison Brown. As we enjoyed a meal that included a choice of vegetable Napoleon, pan-roasted salmon with soy-ginger vegetables or beef tenderloin in a Bearnaise sauce, the conversation at this interesting table explored a number of topics such as the history of USM and our own memories of college days spent in the library.

The meal was capped off with a dessert plate that included scarlet poached pears, mini fried apple pies and a raspberry chocolate wedge.

Bob Blackwood, who serves on USM’s board of visitors, told me he thinks “it’s really exciting that they’ve made an effort in this area because USM students have a high debt level.”

When I chatted with Michael Dubyak, the CEO of Wright Express and the chair of USM’s Board of Visitors, he told me that “higher education is severely underfunded in this state. You need to have scholarships to make up for the lack of state support.”

He went on to say that Wright Express, which provides charge cards to commercial and governmental fleet operators across the country, could be headquartered anywhere.

“We need to have a strong university system feeding us quality people,” Dubyak said. “How are you going to create jobs? How are you going to attract businesses? It’s all about higher education. We need all the funding and scholarships we can get.”

The link between economic development, financial aid and student achievement is a subject near and dear to USM President Selma Botman’s heart.

“This is a university focused on student success,” she told me. “We define student success as students graduating from USM. Most of our students have financial needs. The more resources they have, the better able they are to complete their degrees in a timely manner. This is the best investment we can make.” 

Staff Writer Avery Yale Kamila can be contacted at 791-6297 or at:

[email protected]