May 28, 2007
With Tuition Waiver, Maine Invests in Its 'First People'
By KATIE ZEZIMA
ORONO, Me. - By the time she was 32, Karen Carrion was living in Fort
Lauderdale, Fla., working for a concert promoter and looking for a
change. She had never attended college and considered it out of the
question because of the cost.
That changed when Ms. Carrion's mother, a Maine native and a member of
the Penobscot Indian Nation, urged her to apply to the University of
versity_of_maine/index.html?inline=nyt-org> and its North American
Indian Waiver and Scholarship Program.
"I probably wouldn't have gone to college at all if not for this," Ms.
Carrion, a sophomore majoring in women's studies, said between classes
at the university's flagship campus in Orono, about eight miles north of
The scholarship pays for tuition, fees, room and board for any
undergraduate or graduate student who can prove membership in a state or
federally recognized tribe or can prove direct descent from a member.
Members of recognized Canadian tribes are also eligible, though students
from outside Maine must first live in the state for one year to
About 500 students throughout the University of Maine system are
enrolled in the program. About 160 of them, 40 of whom are from out of
state, are enrolled at Orono, said John Bear Mitchell, coordinator of
the waiver program.
The program dates to 1934, when university trustees voted to grant full
scholarships to five students who were members of the Penobscot or
Passamaquoddy tribes. In 1971, the criteria were broadened to include
all North American Indians, but few took advantage. In 2001, the
university appointed Mr. Mitchell to streamline the program, and
enrollment has increased.
"I think it's our responsibility as a land grant university to work
together with the state's first people and ensure they not only have
access, but succeed in higher education," said Edna Mora Szymanski, the
senior vice president and provost.
Mr. Mitchell said the program cost the state about $2 million last year.
Other colleges and universities around the country offer similar
programs. Among them are the University of Minnesota
versity_of_minnesota/index.html?inline=nyt-org> -Morris and Fort Lewis
College in Durango, Colo., which give qualified American Indians free
tuition, and the University of Massachusetts
versity_of_massachusetts/index.html?inline=nyt-org> system, which
offers tuition waivers to Indians who are state residents. Michigan
waives tuition at all public colleges and universities for students who
prove their tribal lineage or membership and reside in the state for a
year or more.
acuse_university/index.html?inline=nyt-org> offers free tuition, fees,
room and board to first-year and transfer students from local tribes.
According to a 2005 report by the American Council on Education, the
number of American Indian students attending college doubled from 1977
to 2002. Mr. Mitchell, a member of the Penobscot Nation, said the Maine
program helped empower its students and gave them a chance to return to
their communities and give back.
Mr. Mitchell is also a co-director of the Wabanaki Center at the
university, which studies the four largest tribes in Maine: the
Maliseet, Micmac, Passamaquoddy and Penobscot. According to the 2000
census, six-tenths of 1 percent of Maine residents, or about 7,000
people, are American Indian.
The center is a gathering place for Indian students, many of whom lived
on small reservations before coming to college. "It's a safe place. It
provides students with a set of relations within the university
community," said Shaerri Mitchell, 36, a graduate student whose
grandfather founded the center. "It models the communal structure of a
reservation." She and Mr. Mitchell are cousins.
Sonya Lacoute, who attended the university as an undergraduate and will
receive her master's in social work next May, came to Orono from
Pleasant Point Indian Reservation, which is home to about 2,000 people
in far eastern Maine.
Ms. Lacoute, who works now in the tribal court for the Penobscot Nation
on Indian Island, about four miles from campus, said the scholarship
allowed her to attend college and the center helped her adjust to life
in a more urban setting than she was used to.
"To me, this was the big city," she said. "In that very different
environment, it was nice to know that there were other natives here in a
very welcoming environment."
Mr. Mitchell said he hoped to bring more out-of-state students to the
program. He does not have much of a recruiting budget, he said, and news
of the scholarship travels mainly by word of mouth. Students are going
to high school classrooms around Maine to publicize the program.
"We're still underrepresented in the University of Maine system," Mr.
Mitchell said. "For a long time the public thought we were needy, and we
want to show them that we're not. We want to educate students, graduate
them, and give the state more tax money and a return on their
Ann Popplestone AAB, BA, MA
CCC Metro TLC
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