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Fifth graders tour Bowdoin with Maine College Circle

May 3, 2019

“Name a college from every state that touches the ocean,” Bob Stuart ’77 announced last Thursday in Kresge Auditorium. Teams of elementary schoolers grabbed their pencils and began listing off schools: Bowdoin in Maine, Tufts in Massachusetts, Stanford in California. Does Alabama touch the ocean? At another table, a group of Bowdoin administrators scribbled their lists as well, but in the end, the students could not be beat. Team Sunshine from Sebasticook Valley won the 2018 College Knowledge Bowl (CKB), and each team member proudly grabbed their trophy (a Bowdoin water bottle) as they bragged about which college they plan to attend in ten years’ time.

CKB is an annual activity put on by Maine College Circle (MCC), a nonprofit that Stuart founded in 1992 to help rural Maine students aspire to and prepare for college. Stuart travels across the state, talking to guidance counselors and elementary schoolers at over 70 schools about achieving their higher education goals and planning for the future. MCC also sponsors the Future of Maine Scholarship, which awards elementary schoolers $100 that can be used to pay for college, textbooks, meaningful extracurriculars or other college prep activities. In the past ten years, 2,500 elementary school students have been awarded the scholarship.

As the organization’s only paid employee, Stuart relies heavily on volunteers, including the MCC club at Bowdoin run by Julianna Kiley ’20 and Anna Martens ’20.

“Kids that are in fourth, fifth, sixth grade have really clear ideas about their life paths. There’s a lot of ‘I want to be a veterinarian,’ and ‘I want to go to this or that school,’” said Kiley. “In a lot of rural schools where students’ parents haven’t gone to college or it’s just not common to leave the community because it’s such a small, tight-knit rural community, students might lose that drive.”

The MCC club, which started in 2017, partners with Stuart to design and mail college newsletters to rural Maine schools. The newsletters contain crosswords and trivia that test students’ knowledge of higher education and help them prepare for CKB. While many school partners can’t make it to the competition itself—most would have to drive upwards of four hours to make it to Bowdoin—teachers and counselors use the newsletters to prompt early discussions about college.

“In the process of getting students to fill out the crosswords and research these questions and find out the answers, it shows them what college is,” said Emma Beaulieu ’21, a member of the MCC club who grew up in Presque Isle, Maine. “I really like random questions, like ‘where did Steph Curry go to college?’ because then the students are on that college’s website and they’re looking at degree options and major and minor possibilities. From that, they’ll see majors that might excite them and encourage them to go to college.”

Students from rural areas are often far removed from the opportunity to participate in activities outside the classroom. Unlike their urban peers, Beaulieu said that rural students like her, might grow up three hours away from the nearest museum, have no access to public transportation and have less extracurricular programming at school.

“Particularly in rural America, people don’t see much opportunity,” said Stuart. “In Brunswick and Yarmouth, we see lots of people doing big things and going different places, starting businesses … But in rural America, [students] just don’t see these resources or opportunities available to them.”

According to the College’s website, 10.4 percent of Bowdoin students come from Maine, but the College does not release data about rural students from Maine or in general. The Office of Admissions has begun to reach out to more rural communities and was involved in Thursday’s CKB. Assistant Dean of Admissions Margot Haines specializes in central and northern Maine and was on the losing administrator team in Kresge.

“We lost, and we’re really happy to have lost because I think it shows just how committed the students and the staff who work with them are in terms of this mission of promoting college awareness and subsequently college readiness,” she said.

“There’s a need to leverage different tactics to connect with [rural] students because our staff of 14 traveling admissions officers can’t reach every urban area, let alone all of the rural places we’d like to reach,” she added. “So using technology to our advantage has become a really important tool for us.”

The Office of Admissions puts on several webinars aimed at rural students, partners with community-based organizations, such as MCC, and makes a point of visiting Aroostook County, the northernmost county in Maine, every year. While it can be difficult for rural students to visit campus, bigger events draw students from far beyond Brunswick. The annual Maine Day open house invites high schoolers from across the state to Bowdoin to learn about the College’s programs and resources.

Stuart is appreciative of Bowdoin’s efforts to recruit rural Mainers and hopes that students and staff continue to support these children.

“I don’t mean to give up on adults, but I think our greatest opportunity is with younger kids,” he said. “It’s not about tax policy. It’s not about trying to attract Amazon to open up a distribution center in Madawaska. I think the solution is really getting behind these rural Maine kids and helping them achieve their aspirations.”


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