MEXICO — Students who are in middle school and even lower grades aren’t too young to start thinking about their college plans, said Lisa Drapeau, a coordinator for the GEAR UP program at Mountain Valley Middle School.

“We’re really focusing on post-high school education or any type of further education, community college or other education that’s going to help students obtain a career that they enjoy, and that gives their lives meaning and purpose,” Drapeau said Friday at MVMS.

GEAR UP stands for Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs, and it is a grant program of the U.S. Department of Education. “There’s a lot of financial and economic and social challenge (in the Mountain Valley area). We just want to make sure that kids understand that no matter what their challenges are, they have the internal resources to use their strengths,” she said.

“And we want kids to understand that if they put forth the effort and energy and they struggle, they can get great things – but no one is going to just give that to them,” Drapeau said.

On Friday sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders at the MVMS learned all kinds of information about colleges and college life from five speakers at the school. Jessica Whittier, one of the speakers and a College Access counselor from Finance Authority of Maine, told students about options they have to finance their college years through financial aid, scholarships and grants.

“The way that most scholarships work is that you earn it by doing or being something special,” Whittier said. She told them that each of them could probably earn a scholarship for something they’ve done or who they are.


One student raised her hand and said she learned from one of the college student speakers earlier that morning that there was a scholarship for being left-handed, and Whittier told students that there’s also a Bruce Lee martial arts scholarship. The Bruce Lee scholarship application student writes an essay about “how much they know about (martial artist) Bruce Lee,” Whittier said.

Whittier also provided the students with information on some college scholarships that are available now for middle school students. Examples include the Ocean Awareness Student Contest, Doodle for Google, the Prudential Spirit of Community Awards and the Paradigm Challenge.

The Doodle for Google scholarship seekers “simply need to take the Google name and turn it into something creative that reflects this year’s theme,” according to information from Whittier.

Google scholarship national finalists will receive a $5,000 scholarship and a grand prize winner will receive a $30,000 scholarship with the grand prize winner’s school receiving a $50,000 technology grant.

Whittier also told students about a Maine state college savings plan, NextGen, which helps families save money for college by matching their savings. “You put in $25 and the State of Maine puts in $200 for you,” Whittier said. By putting some of their birthday money, allowance money or money from “small jobs” into their college savings, students can start now to save for college, she told them.

Bob Stuart, director of Maine College Circle, was another speaker at College Access Day. Stuart told the students about his experience growing tomatoes from seed and how the seedlings need soil, water, air and sunlight. But, he said, some wind is also needed to help the plant grow strong. The wind for the tomato plants is like the challenges the students’ face in their own lives, making them stronger.


“You have more potential and more strength because of what you put up with,” Stuart said.

College students Liza White of the University of Maine at Orono and Brittany Wakefield of the University of Maine at Farmington joined Stuart to tell students about their lives and college experiences. Both students attended MVMS as students and Wakefield had plenty of “challenges” in her earlier years, Stuart said.

Wakefield told students that there were a lot of options available for them for colleges and that “different campuses have a different feel.” She said that one reason she really likes UMF is because it is a small school where “every professor knows me by name.”

UMO student Liza White told students she didn’t know she wanted to be a bioengineering major until her senior year in high school. “So, it’s ok if you’re sitting here right now and thinking ‘I like so many things; I don’t know what I want to do,’” she said.

Dori Fellman, college transition coordinator from GEAR UP Maine, spoke with students about differences between college and high school. Fellman told students that “it’s really important to have good study habits (in college), and it’s a really good idea to do the work for a class right after you get out of that class because no one is going to tell you or remind you about assignments,” she said.

Another activity on College Access Day for the students was a BINGO game played with vocabulary words pertaining to college life and students’ college needs. Seventh-grader Kathryn Rice, a GEAR UP student representative, led the students in the game. Besides playing BINGO with the words, the students discussed the definition of the words. By learning the college-related words and their definitions students gain knowledge and “are empowered to share that knowledge,” GEAR UP coordinator Lisa Drapeau said.

College students Liza White, left, and Brittany Wakefield spoke to students about their college experiences on College Access Day at Mountain Valley Middle School last Friday. White is a freshman at the University of Maine at Orono and Wakefield is a senior at the University of Maine at Farmington. Both of them attended MVMS when they were younger. (Marianne Hutchinson/Rumford Falls Times)

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