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Mitchell Scholarships provide a path to success for many

Over a long career of doing good for his nation and the world, this program remains unique.


My wife and I attended the Mitchell Institute's 10th annual dinner last week. As most Mainers know, the Mitchell Institute was founded to support the scholarship program that then-Sen. George Mitchell established with the remains of his political war chest.

As Mitchell tells the story, he had made it a goal as senator to speak at the commencement of each of Maine's more than 150 high schools. He accomplished this goal shortly before leaving the Senate.

From this experience came the idea to establish a scholarship – a scholarship that would be given annually to a deserving graduate of each of Maine's high schools.

That's correct, a $5,000 scholarship – $1,250 per year for four years – is given to someone at every Maine high school each year.

The Mitchell Scholarship Program has become a major force in bringing the dream of higher education to more of Maine's students.

Ten years into the program more than 1,600 Maine students have received scholarships totaling some $7 million. About one-third of the Mitchell scholars have been the first in their families to go to college.

Impressively, 80 percent of all the scholars have graduated – a significantly greater percentage than the state average of just over 50 percent.

At the dinner we heard the story of Mitchell Scholar and University of Southern Maine student Alfine Nathalie.

Alfine and her family came to this country as refugees from Kenya. She is the first of her family to go to college, and made it clear that she would not be there but for the Mitchell Scholarship.

She is a vibrant, engaging young woman – clearly motivated to make the most of her opportunity.

The Mitchell Institute provides support and assistance to all the scholars to help them navigate the often formidable challenges faced by college students, particularly first generation college students.

Over the years, the institute, under the able leadership of Executive Director Colleen Quint, has developed into a center of policy research on higher education issues.

Best known is "From High School to College: Removing Barriers for Maine Students," an excellent analysis of the ways to address barriers to students going on to higher education.

However, the heart and soul of the Mitchell Institute is George Mitchell himself. He may be heavily engaged in Middle East peacemaking, but he was clear that his passion remains with this program.

I have heard Mitchell speak on many occasions. He has a rare ability to engage his audience in a personal and often moving way.

Some of this has to do with the way he shares his own life story – growing up in Waterville as the youngest in a large Lebanese family with parents of little education and modest means.

His father was laid off just as George graduated from high school, making it seemingly impossible for him to go on to college.

The unlikely intervention of his father's former supervisor, a man George had never met, helped him secure a spot at Bowdoin.

Only in America could such opportunity happen, and George Mitchell is still profoundly grateful. Mitchell has a way of connecting us to our better selves.

I never fail to leave hearing him speak without reflecting on what I might be able to do to make the world better.

This may seem naive, but my bet is if you polled those leaving the Marriott last Friday night, most would say the same thing.

Of course this is partly why the event is such a successful fundraiser for the scholarship foundation. Who could resist such an opportunity to do good?

But it really is about much more than fundraising. Those Mitchell Scholars in attendance couldn't fail to get the message: Sen. Mitchell was putting his faith in them not just to graduate, but also to make something of themselves.

It is no accident that Mitchell Scholars are heavily engaged in their communities, logging over 30,000 hours of community service last year.

George Mitchell had quite a vision when he started his scholarship program.

Many senators have unused campaign funds, but few make as much of them as Mitchell has.

Thank you, Sen. Mitchell, for this enduring legacy for Maine. You are a wonderful example of what one person can do, given the opportunity.

You are no doubt a person of extraordinary ability and determination.

Yet your most remarkable talent may be the ability to give all of us a glimpse of these same qualities in ourselves.