RUMFORD – After graduating from Mountain Valley High School in 2017, Travis Palmer could have spent the summer hanging with friends before he headed off to Bates College in Lewiston.

Travis Palmer is a Bates College student who has held a school board seat from his native Rumford since he graduated from high school in 2017. Submitted photo

Instead, he ran for one of the four seats on the Regional School Unit 10 board of directors to represent Rumford.

Palmer had served as a student representative to the 13-member board and “felt kind of crummy” that he couldn’t actually cast a vote on its decisions, he said. When his term ended, he ran for election and won.

Palmer, 21, spent the next two and half years successfully juggling his responsibilities as an elected official with the necessities of a rigorous academic load at a highly-regarded liberal arts college that prides itself on having its students engage with the wider world.

When both Bates and the public schools in Rumford shut down in mid-March to help stymie the spread of the new coronavirus, Palmer, like many students, suddenly found himself in a wholly new environment.

“It’s been a very taxing experience,” he said.

Palmer said the shift to remote learning, both at Bates and for RSU 10 students, is less than ideal but “absolutely necessary.”

“It’s extremely important to take these precautions, especially when you’re talking about kids,” Palmer said.

He said he is a passionate advocate for education and convinced that online learning is a poor substitute for a good classroom. But, Palmer added, “you take what you can get.”

The RSU 10 administration, he said, has shifted quickly to the new necessities of remote teaching and finding ways to feed hungry students.

“We’ve done a really great job,” Palmer said, because administrators dived in and put together solid plans.

The board reviews and approves them, he said, but trusts the professionals to do it all as well as possible, recognizing that anything thrown together on the fly won’t be perfect.

Jerry Wiley, the board’s chairman from Buckfield, said he shares Palmer’s views. He said the panel is “concerned about everything” but coping well.

At Bates, too, the rapid shift has been astonishing.

Palmer said the college was “slow and lackluster” in its initial response to the COVID-19 threat, but moved swiftly once officials there grasped the situation more fully.

He said professors did a phenomenal job of shifting courses online that were never intended to be there. They’ve also been “very understanding” of the difficulties that students face trying to complete work, he said.

“It’s definitely a challenge,” Palmer said.

In truth, he said, he’s been more focused on his role with the school board than his responsibilities as a student. But his professors recognize that he has a lot to shoulder.

For Palmer, it’s about a love for both education and his hometown.

He said his grandparents, who all lived in the area, talked to him about how Rumford once had a booming paper mill, ballparks full of fans watching baseball games and a thriving business community.

That’s not what his parents and classmates saw around them.

For them, Palmer said, it was hard to overlook the struggling economy and decaying town.

His high school friends uniformly eyed the day they could go somewhere else with more opportunity.

Palmer, though, sees hope when he looks at Rumford.

“I was the only one” in his class, he said, who saw Rumford “more as an opportunity than something to run away from.”

He said it’s the kind of place that rallies around those in need. People show up to offer support, Palmer said.

Growing up, he idolized former U.S. Sen. Edmund Muskie, a Rumford native and Bates graduate, who eventually became secretary of state. It wasn’t until Palmer got to Bates, though, that he fully appreciated how Muskie, hailing from the same little town, could be a role model as well.

He said the college has a demanding academic atmosphere that it took him a little while to come to grips with.

But what he’s really loved there is Bates’ commitment to outreach within Lewiston and Auburn.

Palmer said he’s probably talked with former state Sen. Peggy Rotundo, an executive at Bates’ Harward Center for Community Partnerships “at least a thousand times” about his involvement in outside-the-classroom initiatives.

It led him to tutor refugees seeking to master the background to pass a citizenship test and to help many students in Lewiston schools.

Through his volunteer efforts, Palmer said he found that he didn’t understand the Lewiston area as much as he thought, calling it “a huge culture shock” to deal with the diversity in the Twin Cities.

It’s something he’s come to embrace.

“Diversity is really important,” he said.

Palmer said that 90% of the government boards in Maine are made up of “old white men,” many of whom do a great job.

But, he said, it’s important for young people, women and others to get involved as well.

Too many young people “have pushed themselves away from politics” in recent years because of the sharp divisions that have arisen, he said.

Palmer said young people, though, have to step forward.

“Don’t hold yourself back,” Palmer said to his contemporaries. “Don’t limit yourself” by standing aside from the important work of government.

Palmer said that when he graduates next year, with a sociology degree, he thinks he may go into teaching for at least a few years and may ultimately want to get into school administration.

Clayton Spencer, the college’s president, said in a recommendation for Palmer posted online that he “nurtures and builds community wherever he is. He will be a positive agent of change wherever he chooses to live and in whatever he chooses to do after his graduation from Bates.”

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