As guests arrived at Southern Maine Community College Foundation’s annual A Light on the Point fundraiser, they had a chance to learn to operate a forklift, do some welding or work on a catwalk – in virtual reality, anyway.

Bath Iron Works’ “Shipbuilder 1,” a mobile lab that brings augmented and virtual reality training to students and prospective employees, was parked outside Oceanview Dining Hall, where the event took place Nov. 2.

“I was walking on a catwalk and was scared to take a step forward,” said Stephanie Bourassa, a guest from South Portland who was surprised by how authentic the virtual reality training felt.

General Dynamics – Bath Iron Works was the lead sponsor of the event and the President’s Award recipient.

“Increasingly, people don’t become good shipbuilders without a leg up from our community college system,” said Ray Steen, vice president of human resources. “The partnerships we have to identify, recruit and train new talent are critical to our success and essential for our survival.”

Two other award recipients – alumnus Jon Smith of Great Falls Construction and Heather Perry, superintendent of Gorham School District – showcased the building construction and educator college-to-career pipelines.

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“SMCC is critical to the southern Maine economy,” Smith said. He graduated from the building construction program at Southern Maine Vocational Technical Institute (now SMCC) in 1988 and started Great Falls Construction that same year. Over 35 years, he has built the company to a 65-person team (that includes his wife Cindy, four of their grown children and a son-in-law). He has served on the SMCC building construction team, on the Gorham school board and on the Gorham Business Exchange.

Gorham was well represented at this event, with Perry being recognized as a catalyst for the Educator Apprenticeship Program, through which a student interested in a career in education can earn a living as they learn, eventually becoming a certified Education Technician II.

“This program strengthens Maine’s educator pipelines,” Perry said. “And it removes barriers. And partnering with SMCC, the first phase of the program is free.”

With SMCC enrollment continuing to surge as a result of the free college initiative that launched in 2022, Admissions Office Administrative Specialist Kristen Baker and Associate Director of Financial Aid Wendy Laverdiere were jointly recognized as Staff Member of the Year.

“Our fall enrollment is 7,206, up 20 percent over last year,” said interim President Tiffanie Bentley. “We couldn’t manage that pace of change without the dedication of our faculty and staff or without engaged alumni and partners.”

The event raised more than $25,000 to enhance academic and athletic programs, provide needed equipment and fund student scholarships.

“Even when tuition and fees are paid for, most students have unmet financial need,” Bentley said. “To meet that rising demand, this year the SMCC Foundation has awarded $495,000 to nearly 500 students, more than ever before. Yet nearly 900 qualified students with demonstrated need did not receive a scholarship because the funds are not available.”

Amy Paradysz is a freelance writer and photographer based in Scarborough. She can be reached at amyparadysz.com.

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