Lisa: Not only are we fortunate to have Maine’s former Senator George Mitchell joining us today, but we also have with us Meg Baxter, President and CEO of the Mitchell Institute and Ethan Pierce, Mitchell Institute scholar. Meg Baxter’s non‑profit career has been four decades, the majority of her work conducted in Maine. She’s a passionate advocate for the non-profit sector and the people in community served by it. In 2001, Meg was named President and CEO of the Mitchell Institute, Senator George Mitchell’s scholarship and research institute.
In that role, she oversees the distribution of four-year scholarships to a senior at everyone at Maine’s 129 public high schools. At any one time, there are over 500 Mitchell scholars in post-secondary institutions. The institute provides mentoring, fellowships, and leadership development to its scholars and alumni. Ethan Pierce is a 2009 Mitchell scholar from Gardiner, Maine and a Maine 2014 degree candidate in Harvard University’s visual and environmental studies department, studying studio art and art history. Thank you for coming in and talking to us today.
Meg: Thanks for having us.
Ethan: Our pleasure.
Lisa: Ethan, we were lucky too to have you because you’re pretty busy these days studying at Harvard and getting your life on the right track. So tell me what’s been going on for you?
Ethan: I’m in my senior year at Harvard, which involves a lot of applications and I just recently got back from my second summer in Berlin, Germany. I was working over there as an intern at a contemporary art gallery. A lot of their applications are hopefully, well hopefully one of them will get me back to Germany next year. It’s pretty exciting.
Lisa: Well that is exciting because you’ve gone from Gardiner, Maine to Berlin, Germany and all I think helped or at least in part helped by your scholarship through the Mitchell Institute.
Ethan: The Mitchell Institute has been an absolutely incredible support all along my path. I first became aware of them in my senior year of high school. I kind of looked at it as a part of potential scholarship money because I really didn’t know how I was going to pay for one of these $50,000 a year college education. I was just so blessed to find out that it was so much more than that. They really provide an absolutely incredible network of support and resources that goes far beyond that pool of money.
Lisa: Well Meg, tell me about that. You’ve been with the Mitchell Institute for a year a year and a half now.
Meg: That’s right.
Lisa: You’ve been working on all these scholarships for our Maine students. What is that all about?
Meg: Well it’s all thanks to Senator Mitchell’s vision. When he left the senate, he had a pot of campaign money that he wanted to use to do something good, and several years before he had attended a conference in Orono on the lack of aspirations of Maine high school students. That troubled him, as many of us know his own story is just remarkable in terms of how he ended up at Bowdoin and how he ended up such a wonderful national and international treasure.
He used the money to start a scholarship program and over time that scholarship endowment has grown to a point where we now are able to name a Mitchell scholar at every one of the 129 public high schools in Maine, and as Ethan mentioned, it only starts with the scholarship. Now I’m happy to say the scholarship is $1500 a year for four years, but we do so much more than the money. Thanks to the growth of our endowment and our fundraising, we’re able to provide so many more supports to our scholars including the fact that we have a fellowship program that we’re able to give to both our scholars and alumni that helps support their personal and professional growth. I think Ethan would be happy to tell you about the fellowship he received that enabled him to go to Germany.
Ethan: Yes, so two years ago, I was a Mitchell fellow and that support helped me to work with a contemporary painter in Germany for the summer. Before that I had an interest in Germany and studied about it, but it really was a life changing moment for me to be immersed in that culture and sort of the art scene and to see all of the things that I was reading and studying about. I couldn’t have done that without the support of the Mitchell Institute.
Lisa: Both of you are interesting in that you’re both first generation soon to be graduates. What does that mean within your families and for you personally?
Meg: For me it meant that my mother’s dreams were fulfilled because she had emigrated from Canada, and it was really important to her that of her seven children, some of us would go on to obtain a college degree. I think her pride has lasted. She is 92 years old. I think it’s a source of pride for her that four of her children are now college graduates.
Ethan: For me and for my family, I think … my sister is also a college graduate and just to see all of us kind of using all of the available resources out there and not only making our own way but helping to support our families, our cousins, my younger brothers and showing them a path to achieve whatever aspirations they might have. I think that’s been really powerful.
Lisa: Obviously, you’ve agreed to come here to talk about your experiences with the Mitchell Institute even though I know that you’re very busy at Harvard, I assume you’re doing some things within your community as well to promote the education that you’ve received and promote sort of higher learning.
Ethan: It’s really important to me having been given so much to find a way to give that out and so actually this past year, I started the Aspiration Maine program. The vision really came in so many ways from the Mitchell institute and what they provided to all of these scholars over the years, and I wanted to find a way that I, as a college student, as a young person without any financial means, I can’t give out a $6000 scholarship to every to 129 high school students every year, but what I can do is provide them with all of the information that I wish I knew when I was in high school.
There’s so much that I’ve learned, so many resources that I’ve learned about to bring funding opportunities, to go spend the summer or a few weeks at a college when you’re in high school abroad. There are these international internship programs for high school students. I really think that Mainer’s can be competitive for those things and even beyond that, just to know about the financially opportunities at these different colleges, like Harvard for example is almost $60,000 a year now.
If your parents make less than $60,000 a year, there’s a full financial aid coverage of your parents portion of that bill which is truly, truly incredible. There are a number of institutions out there like that. To be able to pass information like that on to these students, it’s really powerful. I started this program last January. I went up to my high school and I spoke in small groups to over 400 students and kind of gave them a chance to ask me questions one on one and explained what different opportunities there are out there that they as Gardiner area high school students are perfectly capable of achieving. It’s really about aspiration.
Lisa: Is it the type of thing that you think Senator George Mitchell wanted to do when he set up this program, Meg?
Meg: I think the Senator’s vision has grown. One of the things I’ve learned working closely with the Senator is that he’s amazing in so many ways, but he continues to learn all the time, and I think that he has learned that the programs that we are providing to support our scholars and alumni are as important as the scholarship. In fact, he came last March to one of our leadership days that was held out at Unum, where we do a lot of work around resume building and interviewing skills for the scholars we’re getting ready to move out of school. He came and spoke to the students about leadership.
He sees that importance of the connection and we’re blessed to have a research director on staff. She has been doing longitudinal studies of our scholars since we began, and she’s able to track how they’re doing, where they are. We know that because of the programs that we provide to our scholars, we have a much higher persistence rate to graduation than the Maine average. Our scholars persist to graduation at a rate of about 85% where the Maine average is about 54%.
I think the Senator as well as the rest of us understand that the importance of the check is quite frankly the hook that we get the kids with, and then we do a variety of programs and mentoring and support to make sure that we’re keeping them on the path. I think an important thing that I’ve learnt since I’ve been a part of the institute is well often times that our students can patch together the money, there are unintended or unexpected costs that crop up and that we want to make sure that they can be helped with that.
An example is a young woman who is in nursing school like UMO, she based a very tight budget on the information that was in the college booklet and she had no margin for error. When she got into her nursing program, the nursing books for 50% more. We want to be able to help the students as they hit those bumps because we have learned and national studies have shown it can be a simple bump like that, that is simply enough to bump a student out of school. We’re constantly in touch with our students and we’re so proud that 90% of them are at schools like Bowdoin.
We have 10% that go to great places like Harvard, but they come back and I think that was the part of the Senator’s vision that he wanted us to have a program that was going to support Maine students to achieve and to aspire and at the same point understand what the opportunities are for them to come back to Maine.
Lisa: At the same time, the Mitchell Institute also works for students who are going to school right here in Maine in our public university systems such as University of Maine.
Meg: Absolutel,y and the University of Maine at Orono has one of our highest cohorts of scholars and they have been amazing as all of our scholars are. I think part of what has been such a learning experience for me is, as we go through the application process, how I get a view of Maine I haven’t seen before. I read all of the applications from schools in Lincoln County and the differences that you learn about lifestyles, about career choices are just amazing. The choices that the students make are often times based on who has come before them just as Ethan had said.
One of the things that we’ve been doing is trying to connect our students across the state so that they understand what’s happening to other students. We just had a fabulous leadership weekend up in Millinocket two weekends ago. We’re very thrilled that over the years we’ve been running this weekend we’ve had 55 scholars from across state that came. We actually had three students from outside the state but the bulk of them were at UMO, University of Maine at Farmington. We had one of University of Maine at Presque Isle which I have now learned is referred to as UMPI and every place else.
It was a wonderful weekend and it gets back to Ethan’s comment a little earlier. We had a great consultant who, Friday night, talked to the students about asking for what you need or what you want. That really resonated with our students because so many of them, they are typical Mainers. They are humble; they are hardworking, and often times the hardest thing for us is to get them to ask. Our scholarship Director Derrick Cash will always say to the student’s, call us up and ask for coffee with an agenda. We try to get the students in and there’s always an agenda, but it’s great to get them in to talk us because we can’t assist them and support them and mentor them if we don’t know them.
This weekend was wonderful in terms of getting great cross-section of students who now will support one and other.
Ethan: Support one other, it’s really one of the fundamental things that Mitchell Institute provides. I think this past weekend actually one of my friends Stephanie at the Mitchell Institute sent me a request on Facebook to join this new Mitchell Institute Out Of Stater’s group. Everyone has been chatting away on that and saying where they’re at and what they’re doing and trying to connect and that’s sort of branch off of the Mitchell Institute Scholars’ page which has been very, very alive since it was started last year with people offering out different opportunities that are available or congratulating one another on getting into XYZ program.
That support and getting to meet these other scholars at these different events like the Unum event or the Gala or really any of these amazing sort of networking opportunities that the Mitchell Institute provides that’s been a fantastic resource as well.
Lisa: Meg, I’m certain that although there was already money and there is money now I’m certain that you’re always trying to enlist the support, financial support and other support of people in the community. So how can people find out more about that or if you’re a high school student looking to apply to be a Mitchell scholar, how do you find out about that?
Meg: They can go to our website which is mitchellinstitute.org and in every high school, we’re actually doing outreach to about 20 different high schools this year,ß and that’s our plan is to get to all the high schools over the next few years to make sure that as much as we hope that the institute is well known, we want to take it to the ground. The same kind of thing that Ethan was saying get in where the kids our and help them do that. They can find out our application which would be on, it will be live on January 1 and the students have to apply by April 1.
One thing I just want to say to students who are listening, pay really close attention to your essay because so many of our students are so close in terms of academic achievements and community impact that sometimes their personal essay is the definer in terms of really helping us understand who you are. People can go to our website. We certainly would love financial support and that’s available through the website. I just want to make sure that everybody understands that Senator Mitchell is deeply involved.
He may have said this and people may have heard him say that next to his family, this is the proudest thing he has ever accomplished which to me is exceptionally humbling to be leading the organization when you think about all of the things that Senator Mitchell has done for this country and internationally.
Lisa: Well I feel very humbled myself having had the chance to sit with both of you here today and I’m just thrilled that Ethan you’ve taken the time to come up here from Harvard. I wish you all the best and I’m certain that you will end up in the program of your choice. I know that I’ll probably hear about you from Berlin as you’re studying for your masters and doing what you end up doing next. Thank you for coming and speaking with us today. We’ve been talking with Ethan Pierce, a 2009 Mitchell scholar from Gardiner Maine and a 2014 degree candidate in Harvard University’s visual and environmental studies department.
Also thank you Meg for all the work that you’re doing with the Mitchell Institute. All the work you’ve done, I know over your life with all the boards and United Way but I wish you all the best for the fundraising and the outreach you’re doing. We’ve been talking with Meg Baxter the President and CEO of the Mitchell Institute. Thanks for coming in.
Meg: Thanks for letting us tell our story.
Ethan: Thank you.