First lady Jill Biden greets Arielle D’Haiti, a student in automotive technology at Southern Maine Community College in South Portland, with a hug while Ruth Morrison, left, chair of the school’s automotive technology department, looks on. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

First lady Jill Biden visited Greater Portland on Wednesday, stopping at Southern Maine Community College to highlight the college’s workforce training programs and the state’s investment in free community college.

The visit was part of the Biden-Harris administration’s “Investing in America” tour to explain how President Biden’s economic policies are benefiting Americans across the country.

Biden was joined by U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, Portland Mayor Kate Snyder, South Portland Mayor Kate Lewis, and Heather Johnson, Maine’s commissioner of economic and community development, as well as several SMCC leaders and students.

The group was welcomed to the South Portland campus by SMCC staff and toured vehicle work stations at SMCC’s Automotive Technology Center before visiting a precision machining lab. The first lady didn’t deliver any formal remarks, but spent time talking with students about their work and career prospects.

“To have Dr. Biden and Secretary Cardona right there, it was amazing to actually show them what we do and let it stick with them physically,” said Patrick Sheehan, a first-year SMCC student who demonstrated some of the work done in the machining lab to the group. “If they can feel it, touch it and hear it, it’s more likely to stick with them and help build the trades up.”

First lady Jill Biden talks to first-year student Patrick Sheehan in the precision machining lab at Southern Maine Community College. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Gov. Janet Mills had been expected to join the visit but announced late Sunday that she had tested positive for COVID-19.


“While I am unable to join our visiting dignitaries in person, I am excited to welcome the First Lady and Secretary Cardona to Maine,” Mills said in a statement Wednesday morning.

“My Administration’s free Community College initiative and other crucial investments from the Biden-Harris Administration are providing important new opportunities for Maine people to get a high-quality education at little or no cost that allows them to take good-paying jobs in rewarding careers – a win for our students, for our employers, and for our economy.”

The Mills administration said Wednesday that the federal American Rescue Plan Act has allowed the state to deliver $35 million to create new workforce training opportunities at the state’s community colleges through the governor’s Maine Jobs & Recovery Plan.

And Mills said she hopes Maine’s free community college program can serve as a model for other states. Expanding access to community colleges around the county is also something federal lawmakers have looked at, Pingree said.

“It’s a huge interest of the first lady’s and she’s certainly made that point with some of the bigger pieces of legislation we’ve worked on,” Pingree said. “I know she will continue to push for that and we hope there are opportunities to do that.”

Maine’s free community college program was proposed by Mills and approved by state lawmakers in April 2022 with a one-time state allocation of $20 million. Students who graduated high school from 2020-23 are eligible for the free scholarships that pay 100% of tuition and mandatory fees after other grant aid has been applied.


The governor has included $15 million in her most recent budget proposal to extend the program for two more years and open it to students graduating high school in 2024 and 2025.

First lady Jill Biden tours the precision machining lab at Southern Maine Community College in South Portland as part of the Biden-Harris administration’s Investing in America tour to highlight the college’s workforce training programs and Maine’s investment in free community college. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Maine Community College System President David Daigler said Wednesday that he hopes the additional funding will be approved not just for two more years, but on a permanent, ongoing basis.

“We’ve seen the impact this program has had on our students and college-going rates in Maine,” Daigler said. “It’s so critically important.”

Maine’s program immediately boosted enrollment by 12% at the state’s seven community colleges last fall.

The latest figures show that fall enrollment was 16,791, compared with 15,004 one year before. Of that, 5,574 of the students – 33% – qualified for the free community college scholarships approved by the Legislature in April 2022.

The first lady visited Colorado on Monday and planned to stop in Vermont later Wednesday to call attention to career-connected learning and workforce training programs and how these programs are helping prepare students for jobs, according to a statement from the Office of the First Lady.


First lady Jill Biden and U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona share a laugh with U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree and Portland Mayor Kate Snyder during a tour of Southern Maine Community College. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Pingree said the Maine visit was “a way to show the first lady exactly what you need to do: Make college affordable and make the trades available to people.”

“We tell young people all the time these are great opportunities and great ways to make a living or start your own business,” she said. “So we were really honored to have the first lady and secretary of education here.”

The Biden-Harris administration on Wednesday also announced $80 million in new funding to develop and strengthen pathways to good infrastructure jobs through its Building Pathways to Infrastructure Jobs Grant Program.

Nonprofits, labor organizations, institutions of higher learning and state and local governments will be able to apply for the grants ranging from $500,000 to $5 million to boost workforce training programs in industries including renewable energy, broadband transmission and expansion, advanced manufacturing and electrical, industrial and civil engineering.

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