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EMCC turns 50

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EMCC turns 50 (edge photo by Mike Fern)

With a new president, EMCC looks forward to the next 50

BANGOR You could say 1966 was a tumultuous year. Lyndon B. Johnson was president of the U.S. during a time when nearly 200,000 troops were part of the war effort in Vietnam. Demonstrations against that war were heating up across the nation, and the military launched its new SR-71 Blackbird spy plane in an effort to gain an advantage in the Cold War.

Meanwhile, the National Hockey League expanded with the addition of the Minnesota North Stars and Pittsburgh Penguins franchises. Informing suspects of their rights became practice for law enforcement after the landmark Miranda v. Arizona was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. The nation's Freedom of Information Act became law and the AFL-NFL merger that would lead to the first Super Bowl the following January was approved by Congress. Walt Disney died during the making of his last personal production, 'The Jungle Book,' and actor Ronald Reagan was elected governor of California to begin a political career that would eventually lead him to the presidency.

Yes, a lot happened that year. Yet another milestone took place a little closer to home, one that nearly 50 years later would prove helpful to thousands of Mainers seeking to further their educations in the greater Bangor area. It was that year when Eastern Maine Community College first opened its doors.

Today, the college looks much different than it did in 1966. With more facilities, classrooms and resources now than when it first opened, EMCC serves many more students and, according to new president Lisa Larson, the school is poised for explosive growth.

"In having some time to look at Eastern Maine from a distance before I started, and now having a few weeks in and having had the opportunity to talk to a few people, Eastern Maine is really set to take a really big [step]," she said in an interview last week. "One vision is to grow through new programming, through new ways of teaching."

Larson, who began the top job at the college just eight weeks ago, said she sees that potential through both matriculated students and those taking non-credit courses. And she sees even greater potential through a newly established liberal arts curriculum that allows students to consistently transfer credits to four-year colleges. Additionally, the role EMCC has held in the community as a technical college has allowed it to foster longstanding strategic partnerships with the business community, which she said has been successful in building the value of the school's graduates.

"We do that through being responsive to our business and industry partners, and we do that through being a good partner with our other colleges in terms of meeting their needs," she said. "We still brand pretty heavily in our career and tech offerings our value placed in that is very high."

A brief history

According to Larson, it's the liberal arts education that has helped fuel EMCC's growth along with the rest of Maine's six other community colleges. However, it wasn't always that way.

With origins stemming from the passage of the Serviceman's Readjustment Bill, known more popularly as the GI Bill, EMCC can trace its roots back to the Maine Vocational Institute, which opened in Augusta in 1946 after Maine's legislature established the school to help returning veterans of World War II.

Seeking to expand educational opportunities further, the state launched a plan to open regional institutes across the state and EMCC was the fourth after Northern Maine opened in Presque Isle in 1963 and Androscoggin in 1964. The state would add three more - Washington County and Kennebec Valley in 1969 and York County in 1995.

The schools themselves went through a transformation as the needs of Maine's students changed. Several were relocated to different towns over the years, and the schools were re-designated as vocational technical institutes when EMCC was founded in 1966. The then-six school system was formalized when the state legislature separated the schools from the state Department of Education and instead created the Maine Vocational Technical Institute System in 1986. Now armed with its own board of trustees and, two years later, a centralized office that would handle functions previously performed by the state, the schools achieved autonomy that allowed for greater flexibility to meet the educational needs of the communities the schools served.

It was in 1989 when the system was renamed the Maine Technical College System, a move meant to entrench the status of the schools as a post-secondary system of higher education. That collegiate philosophy was extended further in 2003 when then-Governor John Baldacci proposed legislation that would rebrand the system's schools yet again to community colleges. It was a logical step that followed many other states that rebranded their two-year college systems, and one which Maine's southern neighbor, New Hampshire, would follow just four years later.

Growing enrollment

The system's rebranding as community colleges helped enrollment numbers by positioning the schools as a higher education alternative to the state's four-year college system and the private universities located across the state. With a lower cost per credit hour EMCC's cost of $90 is about half that of the University of Maine's and easy access through their strategic locations in Maine's most heavily populated areas, the community college system has seen tremendous growth in both traditional and nontraditional students.

For Eastern Maine - which has the third-highest enrollment in the system - that has meant a nearly 50 percent increase in enrolled students in the last 10 years. System-wide, the figure is about 40 percent.

While Larson credits EMCC's programming for part of that increase, she's quick to add that the college provides a unique benefit that became increasingly important after the economic downturn began in 2008 worker training."I've been in education for 20 years and have seen that cycle come through. When a downturn happens, and people find themselves in a need to re-career, and find that next opportunity to build on what they'll do next for a career, we respond in multiple ways," she said. "We respond in the types of programming that we currently have. Maybe they want to move into automotive. We're there and they become a full-time student and they go through that traditional pathway."

Larson said EMCC has participated in the process of worker retraining for situations such as the closure of the Verso paper mill in Bucksport. Additionally, the college's strong relationships with area employers allows them to offer tailored programming to help new or current employees gain needed skills; the school has also been awarded grants under Maine's Quality Center program to assist with those efforts.

"We've had seven quality center grants, and we want to be able to expand on that," she said. "For us to do that, we have to be at the table, to be the leader in the community that says, 'Absolutely, and this is how we can do it to bring all the support pieces together.'"

Still, the largest part of the growth in enrollment the last 10 years has been from those seeking a cost-effective path to a four-year degree. Called transfer education, the community colleges have played an increasingly important role in improving Maine's historically low college participation levels and bridging that gap between high school and the University of Maine system and other baccalaureate schools in the state.

With the establishment of a traditional two-year associate in arts degree in 1999 and move to the current community college system in 2003, all seven schools went through the process of being accredited by the NEAS&C Commission on Institutions of Higher Education, the regional accreditation agency for most colleges and universities in the six-state New England region. It's that integration that has helped fuel the system's tremendous growth.

"About 16 percent transfer to a higher educational institution after earning their associates degree. Some transfer before they finish the two years. That has increased since the school began offering liberal arts studies," Larson said. "Truly, I think many students feel confident that they will spend their first two years here because it does allow them to have a cost-effective way to get the first two years so they can be ready to move on."

With the University of Maine and Husson University nearby, Larson said the school's cross-institutional partnerships are strong and faculty will often collaborate on curricula or program requirements to provide a seamless transfer for those seeking to complete general studies requirements at the community college level. And while colleges may have different requirements to transfer to a particular major, she credits the faculty from the different schools who come together to determine common educational goals and align curriculum to ensure that transfer students are successful when they reach junior status.

"It's so important that we keep those lines of communication open. We've just put together a block transfer set of courses between the two-year colleges and the universities, mainly in the liberal arts area," she said. "While that's been agreed to, it's absolutely necessary for these two sets of faculty to continue to talk and share what they're teaching, how they're assessing and the shared outcomes. You have two very strong units of faculty that have a strong sense of what they believe is needed for a student to be successful.

"They're the ones who are the subject matter experts. They're the masters in that discipline."

Larson added that such collaboration includes specific programs, such as EMCC's electrical courses that will transfer to UMaine's electrical engineering program. She noted a recent conversation with a dean at UMaine who complimented EMCC for how well students are prepared when they enter the program.

"It's really validating to hear that we've done a really nice job of preparing them to either go into the workforce or continue on and they'll find success in both of those arenas," Larson said. "It's a great testament to that partnership that can exist."

The boss is here

For Larson, who now lives in Hampden, the transition to Maine's college system was a relatively natural one. A native of South Dakota, it didn't take long after beginning her college career at Northern State University in Aberdeen, S.D., to realize that she belonged in a classroom.

"My goal in life was to teach history at a university. I went to college and I fell in love with my first public speaking class I took as a freshman with the wrestling team because I registered late," she laughed. "That was just such a great class and I never thought I would say that or have that experience. I quickly changed my major to become a communications major."

While she thought she was going to teach social studies, she soon changed her major to secondary education with a minor in political science. By the time she graduated with a bachelor's, her advisor recommended she continue on for her master's degree and she moved to Minnesota and enrolled at Minnesota State University, Mankato for her post-graduate work. Soon thereafter, she moved back to her hometown in South Dakota and began teaching ninth-grade civics.

After the first few months, however, she realized the high school environment wasn't for her.

"I was a grad assistant when I was getting my master's so I was teaching freshman level public speaking at the university level and I really fell in love with that," she said. "So having had that experience and then going back to a ninth-grade classroom, I was like, I need to refigure this."

She moved back to Minnesota and finally landed a job in Hennepin Tech's Department of Communications, and would teach for the next five years before leaving the classroom for a faculty development position involving accreditation and quality. A couple of years later, she joined the administrative side and became a dean for several schools in the area. Her first role was dean for construction, transportation and manufacturing.

"They welcomed me in," she laughed. "While I didn't know a whole lot specifically about those industries, they knew that I had been a faculty member and I taught their students."

Over the years, she also served in roles including vice president of academic and later student affairs. The positions gave her valuable experience in how to attract and retain students, as well as how to serve their educational needs.

However, it was when she became an interim president of North Hennepin Community College in nearby Brooklyn Park, Minn., that she fell in love with the top job. Unfortunately, her interim status barred her from applying for job when the post ended due to school policy.

"I realized then that I wanted to be a president," she said. "I started looking and applying and was honored to be offered the position at Eastern Maine."

While many educators like Larson move to administrative positions, she's always tried to maintain close relationships with faculty and a classroom perspective. It's that perspective that she feels helps her do a better job as a top administrator.

"I do miss the classroom, but I've found different ways to be able to fill that part of me," she said. "Part of that is working with faculty and working with students. I try never to get too far away from students or faculty. Part of it is just getting up and walking around."

The next 50

Since its inauguration. EMCC has awarded nearly 8,500 degrees, diplomas or certificates to nearly 7,500 individuals over the past 50 years. With a current enrollment of over 2,700 students, those numbers will only grow as the college continues to position itself as the bridge between high school and four-year colleges. Still, a major part of the student body is the non-traditional student, who is typically older, may already be in the workforce and is seeking to gain new skills or hone existing ones.

In fact, the average age of students at Maine's community colleges is 26. And 37 percent of new students are adults aged 21 and over. And for EMCC, over 50 percent of their students are part time and come mostly from Penobscot County and the surrounding five counties. In addition to its campus, EMCC also manages satellite campuses within its geographic region in East Millinocket, Ellsworth and Dover-Foxcroft that they share with the University of Maine at Augusta.

Many of those students attending EMCC are seeking to move into a different career, and Larson said expanding that kind of programming along with concentration on key areas will certainly benefit enrollment in the future. Part of that growth is adding the facilities to handle it, and a recent example of that is the former Maine Jump location on Hogan Road that was recently purchased and renovated to become the new Public Safety Training Center.

"We knew we wanted to grow and expand our criminal justice, fire science and EMS program offerings. This building became available and the college worked through our foundation and the system foundation and we were able to secure the funding [to purchase it] and the funding to renovate it," she said of the new building. "It's been a huge source of public awareness for the college. You get to see great signage when you drive by. It houses some excellent programs that are critical to public safety."

While the public safety program is strong at EMCC, Larson is quick to add that their strongest draw continues to be longstanding programs for which the college is well-known, including healthcare, business management, culinary arts and early childhood education. Yet it's what EMCC represents as an accessible, viable alternative to higher-cost education that Larson sees as its greatest asset, and keeping EMCC viable is part of the challenge.

"[EMCC's] mission as a whole has been around access, opportunity and success. We have to continue to remain vigilant around the types of programming that we offer that meets the community's needs. What we're going to continue to see change in higher education and at Eastern Maine is how we offer that," she said. "We have to embrace technology, whatever that looks like. We have to be responsive to how technology can drive how we teach and how students learn."

Part of that future growth also stems from available resources, and with EMCC's $25 million annual operating budget largely spoken for, not much is left to seed capital improvements or facilities expansion. Yet Larson hopes the college's 50th anniversary will be a good opportunity to engage the public to help build a sustainable source for future growth through the college's foundation, which so far has been used mostly to fund scholarships and small projects.

And part of building that fund may also reside in the school's alumni, which numbers in the thousands and so far has been largely untapped due to the lack of an alumni association. That is about to change.

"Many of them are still in the community or the region. Many have gone on to have successful careers. Many have sent us their kids," she said. "How do we thank them for that? How do we reengage them in celebrating the time that they had here? It's a huge opportunity to tell our story."

She said EMCC will be hosting several events this year dedicated to the college's 50th anniversary celebration, including a gala planned for December. And alumni will be invited and have a chance to come back and be part of the school that may have been instrumental to their education and career. It will also be a chance to launch a new 50th anniversary foundation fund that she hopes will grow over time to help with future capital improvements and programming expansion.

"We're going to be creative. We're going to listen," she said. "We're going to invite dreaming, because we need to dream what's coming next."

Last modified on Saturday, 14 October 2017 16:33


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