FARMINGTON — “This is a different part of the country,” said the University of Maine at Farmington President Edward Serna. “It is beautiful. One thing we really enjoy the most is being able to walk everywhere, to be able to walk to work, to walk to Mallet school, to be able to walk to dinner. The environmental stress is just gone. I don’t know if people who have lived here a long time appreciate it but when you don’t have to think about traffic patterns to go to the grocery store, it’s a big deal.”

The University of Maine at Farmington President Edward Serna. Submitted photo

Serna was named the 15th president of the university earlier this year and has been at the helm for four months.

Before coming to Farmington, Serna worked at the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith where he served as interim chancellor from 2017 to 2019, chief of staff and vice chancellor for external funding from 2016 to 2017 and the director of grants management and compliance from 2015-2016.

Previously, he worked as an assistant professor in the College of Business at Athens State University in Athens, Alabama, and was program manager for Science and Engineering Services L.L.C. in Huntsville, Alabama.

Although his career was built in the south, Serna was raised in Connecticut. He said the transition back to New England, and into the community, “has been fantastic.”

Serna lives on campus with his wife, Lauren, and their two young daughters Caroline and Anna Kate.

“I think a misconception in the south that New Englanders are gruff and not very friendly. That is not the case. Everyone has been so warm and so nice,” he said. “One of the draws for us to come here is this is where we want to raise our daughters. This is where we want to stay long-term. Everything we have seen in the four months we have been here has confirmed that was a great decision.”

When his appointment was announced in May, Serna mentioned a few issues he wanted to tackle, including increasing access for new and diverse student populations, expanding master’s degree programs and creating new partnerships in the community.

“We’ve done some great work on that front,” he said Thursday, Nov. 7.

He said he has met with presidents of Eastern Maine Community College, Southern Maine Community College, Central Maine Community College and Kennebec Valley Community College regarding the university’s Community College Partnership.

“We are looking at partnerships with all of them to create new pipelines for all of those students,” he said.

UMF has hired Erin Conner as associate dean of Graduate and Continuing Education.

“She is out there doing great work,” he said. “She is out there listening to people and identifying needs. We are starting to offer more classes online and at times for working adults. We just announced our new Master of Science in special education. That is a big workforce need.”

Master’s program in counseling was recently approved by UMaine, he said. The program will go before the university’s Board of Trustees later this month, he said.

“We are continuing to roll out more graduate programs, and we are continuing to talk to community colleges and K-12 schools,” he said. “We are not just continuing to develop programs because of academic pride. We are developing programs that there are needs for. That is our mission. We are a regional state university. We should be out talking to people and developing programs that meet their needs. I think there is a lot more energy around that now and that is one of the most exciting things I’ve seen in the last four months.”

He said UMF is also working on a collaborative relationship with Franklin Memorial Hospital and the University of Maine at Augusta nursing students. UMF does not have a nursing program.

“We’ve had two meetings with the hospital about the nursing shortage and about what we might be able to do there. We are in talks with UMA about possibly doing a cohort of nursing students here. We are just starting to try to find some way to help Franklin Memorial.”

The connection the university has with the community is something special, he said.

“In other places I’ve lived, there has been friction,” he said. “That doesn’t exist here. I really feel like this is a place where we are integrated into the fabric of the community. In a lot of ways, it is seamless. What really hit home for me was the tragedy at LEAP and how our students responded to that. These are kids that are 19 and 20 years old, some of them aren’t even from Maine, but it so impacted them, and they wanted to help in some way. I told these kids that sometimes the perception of their generation is that they are disconnected, they are not part of the community. That is not our students and I am so proud of that.”

Serna makes himself available to students on campus. He has an open-door policy and has implemented “Sipping with Serna”, a time for students to meet with him over a cup of coffee and pastries.

“I wanted to be available to students in an unstructured environment where they could come talk to me if they wanted or stop in to grab a free cup of coffee and pastry if they didn’t want to talk,” he said.

The first event, held in early November, was a success, he said.

“Until I got here, I don’t think I realized all the strengths the university has,” he said. “There is great opportunity here. It is still so early for me but what I count as a success are the opportunities I’ve had to get out and talk to  people about UMF and hear about how positive they are about this institution, to hear about the vital role we play in Western Maine and teacher education, and learn about the difference we’ve made in students’ lives. That is a great strength and success to start with.”

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