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Maine scholarship ensures all students get opportunity to succeed

Every year since 1999, the Mitchell Institute has awarded a $10,000 scholarship to one student from every Maine public high school.

MAINE, USA — When you walk into the Mitchell Institute headquarters in Portland, the phrase the former U.S. Senator George Mitchell lived by is written on the wall: "No one should be guaranteed success...but everyone should have a fair chance to succeed." 

That concept is what has been driving the work done at the institute for more than three decades.

The Mitchell Scholarship has been around since Mitchell retired in 1995. In 1999, a grant helped him officially establish the Mitchell Institute. Since then, it has awarded more than $21 million in scholarships to more than 3,400 students across more than 130 public schools in Maine. 

Students pursuing two-year and four-year degrees can receive this scholarship.

"[Senator Mitchell] really wanted to do something for all of the communities he had visited throughout the state of Maine," Jared Cash, the president and CEO of the Mitchell Institute, said. "He had spoken at high school graduation at every single public high school during his service in the Senate, and he saw the aspirations of the students, and he saw the consistency from one community to the other. They all had big dreams, and they all had big aspirations."

Bryanna Alley is in her third year at Plymouth State University and plans to graduate this spring. She said the Mitchell Scholarship helped her get to where she is now, despite some adversity in her earlier years.

"I grew up in a pretty low socioeconomic area of Portland. I was in foster care, and I fit the bill for someone who doesn’t stereotypically or statistically pursue education," Alley said.

For her, a big goal was changing that stigma. She found the Mitchell Scholarship online and decided to apply since the criteria fit her as a person and her views on education. Since receiving the scholarship, she has pursued her dream of working in health care, going to school, and training as an EMT last year via a fellowship, also from the Mitchell Institute.

"Truly, all of the Mitchell [Institute] staff will do anything in their power to just help you with whatever you need, financially, emotionally, physically, everything," Alley said.

She said she plans to move back to Maine after graduation and wants to enroll in the University of New England's physician assistant program.

"I think really deep-grounded in me it's just the wanting to help people. I’ve just always had that desire," Alley said.

Zak Charette of Mount Desert Island also grew up with an unstable home life. He said his father struggled with using alcohol and drugs and wasn't around much, and his mother was often bedridden.

"I was just like, 'I don’t want that for myself,'" Charette said. "It was pretty much like you need to go to college and get a job in order to get yourself out of this pattern."

Charette said his high school girlfriend told him about the Mitchell Scholarship. He applied, received it, and then attended the University of Maine at Orono to study mechanical engineering. It was a program he said he almost dropped out of, but he had a helpful call with one of the Mitchell Institute staff members that convinced him otherwise.

"We had like an hour conversation about what I should do, and that was amazing because it was just like, I was talking to a mother or a father who was like, 'Alright son, you should think about these things before you make a decision,'" Charette said.

Now, Charette lives in Portland and works as a mechanical engineer at Colby Co. Engineering

"These people are more like family," Charette said of the Mitchell Institute team. "They’re really just the greatest support system I had throughout college."

New Mainer Jean-Daniel Liwanga found a greater support network, too, through the Mitchell Institute after a few tough years when his family first arrived in the United States. 

"In 2014, my family, which is six of us, my parents and three of my siblings, immigrated to Portland, Maine. That was eight years ago," Liwanga said. "We were new, didn’t know the language, didn’t know anybody here. It was a shot in the dark. I don’t know why my parents chose Maine."

Liwanga is now studying computer science at the University of Southern Maine after receiving the Mitchell Scholarship. He said he initially thought about leaving Maine to go to college, but it didn't make sense financially. Now, he feels more connected to the Pine Tree State, anyways.

"I do have to say the Mitchell Scholarship has made me learn more about the opportunities that are in Maine," Liwanga said. "There’s this thing in high school where people think there are more opportunities outside of Maine, like in New York or Boston or L.A.; but really, there’s a lot of things here, too."

Liwanga said he has three semesters left at USM. Then, he's hoping to go to graduate school and perhaps start his own business.

"Deeply, I know that for sure Maine is my home. Maine is where I want to grow my career," Liwanga said.

Maine is where Ideh Rohani, a nurse practitioner and 2002 high school graduate, has grown her career after receiving a Mitchell Scholarship award. She said she applied after her father received a flyer about the program in the mail. The financial help was much needed since her family immigrated to the United States in the 1980s.

"[Back then] there weren’t a lot of people who looked like me in Auburn particularly," Rohani said. "It was a challenge, I think, being someone who felt other."

Rohani eventually received a fellowship from the Mitchell Institute, as well, allowing her to expand the nursing education she got in school. She said that always having the support of the Mitchell Institute made it possible for her to thrive.

"It was like an extended family. I knew I could call institute staff and meet up for a coffee if I needed to talk about a tough class, or if I had questions about the job search," Rohani said.

The Mitchell Scholarship application is open from now until April 1 at midnight. To learn more and apply, click here

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