WASHINGTON — By the time Patricia Marshall enrolled at Colby College in the fall of 1990, she had endured a childhood of extreme poverty that probably would have shocked most of her classmates.

She had lived most of her years in rural Maine without indoor plumbing. To escape the fighting and abuse in her home, Marshall turned a van parked in the yard into both her study room and her bedroom, even during the cold winter nights.

Thanks to her experiences with the Upward Bound program that brought low-income high school students to the University of Maine’s Orono campus for summer sessions, however, Marshall found she actually had an upper hand, of sorts, over many of her new Colby College peers.

“My computer skills were solid, I was a strong self-advocate and I had been fully empowered to spend a summer in Europe,” Marshall, who is now a professor and university administrator in Massachusetts, told a room full of people attending a congressional hearing this week. “I was well poised for success at Colby and beyond due to programs that wrapped their arms around me and gave me the support that I needed at a critical and very vulnerable time in my life.”

Marshall said a large part of her transformation from deep poverty to a professor with a doctorate is attributable to a suite of programs — known as TRIO programs — that are now fighting for a shrinking pool of federal resources.

As Congress debates a new budget and whether to restore the across-the-board budget cuts known as “the sequester,” she and other graduates or supporters of TRIO were on Capitol Hill this week urging lawmakers to protect the programs.

It’s an uphill fight, given the stark budget and political realities in Washington these days.

“Cutting this (program) will not help kids succeed and will leave them further behind and leave our country further behind,” said Sen. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat who co-chairs the Congressional TRIO Caucus with Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine. “Programs like this will not continue to exist without people who will fight and fight hard for them.”

Maine operates 21 TRIO programs serving roughly 6,700 students. Sixteen of the 21 are run through the University of Maine System. They range from Upward Bound and Talent Search — two programs aimed at young, college-bound students — to educational opportunity centers for adults and college programs for veterans.

Since Fiscal Year 2011, TRIO programs nationwide have lost more than $125 million in federal funding. Those losses have resulted in the closure of 125 Upward Bound programs — including one in Orono — and 42 post-baccalaureate programs.

Karen Hadley Heim, associate director of the Talent Search and Educational Opportunity Center programs at UMaine, said federal funding for TRIO was flat for many years before the budget cuts during the past three years.

“So the 5.2 percent cut (from sequestration) is going to hit TRIO programs pretty hard,” Heim said after Wednesday’s briefing, which was attended largely by TRIO supporters but also a handful of congressional staffers. “And it is an investment program.”

Growing up north of Bangor in the small community of Bradford, Marshall said she lacked many basic comforts, not to mention role models that would encourage her to pursue a college education.

Before participating in Upward Bound during high school, Marshall never had lived for an extended period of time with indoor plumbing. She and her mother obtained water from a hand pump outside of their small trailer and used an outhouse, weather permitting.

They eventually moved into a larger trailer — still without plumbing — but were joined by her abusive father. Marshall said she decided during middle school that her only ticket out of poverty was education, so she devoted herself to reading and her school work.

When her parents’ fighting became too much to bear, Marshall said, she moved into the van parked in her front yard and ran an extension cord to plug in a light. During winters, she heaped piles of old sleeping bags on top of herself and her dog while they slept on an old mattress.

“And I still remember to this day the weight of those bags,” she said.

Marshall eventually was accepted into the Upward Bound residential program at UMaine, where she said she learned not only how to use a computer but also valuable social and study skills. She credits the program and its mentors with helping her avoid pitfalls that often get in the way of young students from rural America.

Today, Marshall is a tenured professor of Spanish and interim associate vice president for academic affairs at Worcester State University in Massachusetts. She said she tries to “pay forward” TRIO’s investment on her by working extensively with students from less privileged backgrounds as well as on improving college access and retention at the school.

“The cycle of poverty has been broken, and I am living proof that TRIO works,” she told the group.

The TRIO programs face plenty of competition for funding, including from many other programs for low-income people.

Collins recently co-led a bipartisan group of lawmakers who sent a letter to their colleagues who oversee TRIO funding, urging them to appropriate money to the programs.

“We recognize that the current fiscal climate represents unprecedented challenges,” the letter reads. “It is for that reason that we must make strategic choices that prepare our citizenry for the jobs of tomorrow and preserve equal opportunity within our society.”

Kevin Miller — 317-6256
[email protected]

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