AUBURN — Rebecca Buck, 27, who grew up in Rumford, dropped out of school her sophomore year. Out of money, for a while she lived with her two children in a homeless shelter.
On Friday she was one of three students honored during the College for Me-Androscoggin's awards luncheon at a packed Hilton Garden Inn dining hall. College for ME-Androscoggin is the regional education initiative to boost the number of degree-holders in the area.
Buck had advice for other students struggling with life's challenges. “Do not stop going to school and wait for life to calm down. Life's not going to calm down,” she said. “You have to find a way to deal with it. Find support. It doesn't have to be family.”
Today she works full time in Kaplan University's admissions office. She got her associate degree earlier this year and is working on her bachelor's degree.
As a teen Buck went to Mountain Valley High School but dropped out her sophomore year. In 2006 she got her GED. Meanwhile she had a young child diagnosed with autism.
She "started missing a lot of work” and couldn't handle the full-time job. Shortly after, her child's father left. She became homeless due to “financial problems and a lack of support.”
She applied at a shelter. “They were able to help me.” She got help finding housing, and was told she needed to think about her future.
She started college, worked 25 to 30 hours a week as a peer tutor for Kaplan and as a lab monitor for the Downtown Education Collaborative. In addition she worked full time at Dunkin' Donuts, all the while earning high grades.
“I don't know how (she did it),” said College for ME board member Anne Ryan, who presented the awards.
The two other student award winners were Victoria Forbis and Anwar Whiting.
Forbis, 48, of Lewiston is a student at Central Maine Community College.
“I quit school in the seventh grade,” she said. In those days she lived in the Sebago Lake community and worked for the variety store and restaurant in the town.
Years later Forbis was working for a grocery store when she was laid off.
“I decided it was time to get an education. I wish I had done it a lot sooner.” She went to Lewiston Adult Education and got her GED. Educators there encouraged her to continue. She completed Lewiston Adult Education's College Transition Program and went to CMCC.
Initially Forbis struggled with self-doubt, and algebra, but was determined. She worked with tutors and instructors and took advantage of support services. Her college experience is a good example for her daughter, Shawna, who now wants to go to college, too, Forbis said. “The coolest thing about me doing all this is her attitude toward it.”
After getting her associate degree in May, Forbis plans to work on her bachelor's degree and pursue a career in health care.
The third student honor winner, Whiting, 31, of Lewiston, is a full-time student at CMCC, majors in automotives and earns strong grades, Ryan told the audience.
Whiting is a single father of two boys, works part time as a carpenter and painter, and volunteers more than 20 hours a week at the Tree Street Youth Center in downtown Lewiston.
At Tree Street he does maintenance and supports youth in the community he lives and grew up in. He gives workshops to teach children how to build, and he uses himself as an example for why higher education is important.
As an African-American man, he takes his role seriously in teaching boys, especially those of color, that they should be proud of who they are and not fall into stereotypes and statistics.
He's considered one of the more powerful mentors of Tree Street Youth's programming, the audience was told.
After Whiting received his award, he was flanked by his smiling sons, Jaheim, 10, and Keagan, 9, as they studied his award.
This is the seventh year of the annual awards ceremony, said Jan Phillips, who chairs College for ME.
“When we first started we had just under 100 people. We were trying to begin to share the amazing stories,” Phillips said. “Now we've got 250 people coming. We get nominations that make your heart break. There are tremendous numbers of people going back to school. Clearly there's something going on in Androscoggin County where the college-going culture is starting to take hold.”