FARMINGTON — It had been 32 years since John Neal graduated from high school and after more than two decades of working as a paper maker at the Wausau Mill in Livermore Falls.
He admits his academic skills were minimal, and he would never have imagined that a year after being laid off he would have a 3.8 GPA in college and would discover he was in demand as a motivational speaker.
Getting laid off turned out to be the best thing that happened to him, he told a group of Franklin County adults just starting on their journey to college through the Maine College Transitions Program. The 14-week course is offered in every Maine county through the Maine Department of Adult Education.
“Losing my job made me look to see what I wanted to be,” he said. “I walked out of the mill and right into my future.”
“I know it is scary but I encourage you to believe in yourself. If I can do it, you can do it,” he said.
“I hear from people all the time that they feel beaten down. Don't close yourself up in a box,” Neal told the students. “There are so many stories out there of people who are starting to reach their potential. Don't take 'no' for an answer. Make it happen.”
The students, who ranged in age from 18 to their 50s, have been meeting for eight hours every Thursday at the Adult Education office at 108 Fairbanks Road in Farmington. The next session begins in January and registration is going on now.
College Transitions is designed for students with a high school diploma or general education development credential known as a GED and is offered at no cost.
It includes career and college planning, academic preparation, financial aid assistance and instructors' help with computer skills, time management and study skills. It is a partnership with the community colleges and the University of Maine System.
A recent panel discussion at the Farmington office had four graduates talking about the value of the program, what they are doing now and answering questions from the class about college life, coursework, instructors and what to do when you find you need extra help.
Panel member Beth Voter, a mother of five who had been out of school for 20 years, went through the program four years ago. She has since been taking college courses at the University of Maine at Farmington while she waited for two years before she got accepted into the nursing program at Central Maine Community College.
She recalled how poor her academic skills were when she started out and how she “bombed” the math pretest required for the College Transitions program.
But once she got the help she needed with math and grammar, learned how to study, how to take tests, and how to organize her work and time, she discovered an inner strength.
“I didn't think my brain was up to the academic and the technology part,” she said. “I can't say enough about how much this program prepared me. I am doing really well at UMF, and I made straight A's in statistics.”
Another panel member, Jo Hansen, was working in retail for years until she got laid off. She is now studying medical office management at Kennebec Valley Community College in Fairfield.
She said she got over the initial fear of college and said learning and studying is a blast.
“My message is that college is a great experience. If you are into this and want it to happen, it will. Things will start coming to you, and you will start figuring out where you want to go,” she said.
Letitia Merrill of New Vineyard said that after high school she didn't have a clue what she was going to do. Now she is studying mental health and human services at the University of Maine at Augusta and hopes to go on to a four-year program.
“I would recommend this to anyone who doesn't know exactly where they are going. It gives you something tangible to work toward,” she said.
Program coordinator Rebbecca Dennison said one of the strengths of the course is the emotional support students give each other as they learn to balance job, family and homework.
“I am so impressed with how this program affects people,” she said.
She recalled one student's words of encouragement and the importance of not giving up in spite of life's other demands: “This is part of your life."
Neal, who took advantage of federal financial assistance programs offered to workers who lose their jobs due to international trade competition, will earn an associate degree in business at Central Maine Community College in Lewiston in May. He plans to transfer to St. Joseph's College in Standish to complete his bachelor's degree in business management.
The father of four boys who once hated school is now a two-year member of Phi Theta Kappa, the international honor society. It has been an amazing journey, he said.
The big accomplishment has been his surprising knack for public speaking. His goal is to share his life experiences with others as a motivational speaker.
“People need hope and to realize within themselves their tremendous potential. And when that comes out, it can change you forever,” he said in an interview.
He has already spoken about the College Transitions program to the Legislature, was a keynote speaker at the annual conference of the National College Transition Network held last month in Rhode Island, and will be a featured speaker at an upcoming GEAR-Up Partnerships for Success program at the University of Maine at Farmington that works with young people in three school districts in Central Maine.
For information on Maine College Transitions, go to www.maineadulted.org or call 800-322-5455. To reach Franklin County Adult Education, call 778-3460 or visit the office at 108 Fairbanks Road in Farmington.