AUBURN — “More and better education” is the key for Americans to gain “the knowledge and skill that allow people to live better lives,” former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell said Friday.

Speaking at the 11th Annual Awards Luncheon for the nonprofit College for ME-Androscoggin, Mitchell urged nearly 200 people to focus on securing a better future instead of searching for a mythical past.

“You have to stop thinking of your grandfather and start thinking of your grandchildren,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell, 83, is a former U.S. Senate majority leader and the broker of the 1998 peace deal that ended the violence that had turned Northern Ireland into a war zone for two generations.

Mitchell hailed the nonprofit’s efforts to spur adults to give college a try, calling it “a great program.”

He said when he graduated from high school at age 16, the son of a janitor and a mill worker, he was uncertain what he should do. Fortunately, he said, there were people who helped steer him to attend Bowdoin College in Brunswick. He also earned a law degree.


With an education under his belt, he said, he had the chance to flourish.

“I’ve lived a very fortunate life,” Mitchell told the crowd at the Hilton Garden Inn. “I believe in the American dream because I’ve lived it.”

He said it’s important that everyone has the opportunity to go “as far as their talent and willingness to work will take them.”

Maggie Davis, the charity’s executive director, said it offers a kick-start and a helping hand to those who are willing to give college a shot. It pays for their first class, she said, and provides support to help them succeed.

Kassie Schmidt, a student at Central Maine Community College in Auburn, said the program convinced her to try to earn a degree. She said she wants to be an inspiration for her young daughter.

It’s working out, she said.


“I’ve had an amazing experience in college,” Schmidt said. “College rocks.”

Mitchell said Americans these days “are fearful, anxious, angry” in a way that doesn’t fit with the country’s strong economy and preeminent place in the world.

He said the worry comes in large part because we are living through a period of fast-paced change, spurred by technology, that matches or exceeds the turmoil created by the Industrial Revolution two centuries ago.

“Never before have human lives been changed so quickly,” he said. Smartphones alone, Mitchell said, have “changed the way we all live every day.”

He told the crowd not to fear the disorienting transition happening all around us. Instead, he said, it’s important to seek ways to stay on top of it as it improves the overall quality of our lives.

Mitchell admitted, though, that “tens of millions” of Americans have been hurt by the growing reliance on robots and machines to do jobs that once took human hands.


Still, he said, “We can’t live in the past.”

The better choice is to pursue “a national debate and a national purpose” that embraces the benefits of technology that isn’t going away. Education is a critical piece of that effort, he said.

Mitchell pointed out that when the GI Bill was signed in 1944, only 4 percent of Americans held a four-year college degree. Now nearly a third of Americans do.

“We have to increase it even more,” Mitchell said, so young people will have the tools to “do the jobs of the future.”

He said he has no doubt the country is up to the task.

“We have overcome many more challenges in the past” that posed far greater danger, he said.


Mitchell said it’s important to keep trying to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to soar, no matter their background. He pointed out that today there could be a child in rural Androscoggin County or in Lewiston who may be a genius who could wind up making society better for everyone.

At least “in our aspirations and our dreams,” he said, we need to aim to make it possible for every child to succeed.

The College for ME-Androscoggin presented Mitchell with its Visionary Award for his many efforts to help education, including the Mitchell Institute he created to provide millions of dollars in scholarships for Maine students.

The nonprofit gave its corporate award to Camden National Bank, a student award to Melissa Potter of Central Maine Community College and its advocate award to Katrina Buchta, a recent Bates College graduate who devoted many volunteer hours to college counseling and help in the community.

Davis said she hopes the college-pushing charity can continue to grow.

“We want to increase our impact and our outreach,” she said.

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