FARMINGTON — Veronica Manasco has known a fair share of struggles for her age. In her 18 years, she and her family have relocated several times across state and town lines, at times being homeless.

But sitting in the basement of the University of Maine at Farmington’s student center, the freshman biology student who has her ambitions set on a pre-med future, would rather talk about how she plans to use those memories to aid in her success rather than how they held her down.

“I really like to help people. I am very empathetic,” Manasco said. “Because of my experiences like homelessness, I want to help people. I want to help people who are homeless or people who have lost parents. I have been through that.”

Last month, Manasco was recognized at the 2015 Mitchell Institute Fall Gala, where she received the Paddy Frank Walsh Pioneer Award. The award is presented to Mitchell scholars who have achieved success in the face of tremendous adversity. The Mitchell Institute, established by former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell in 1999, is a Maine-based organization with a mission to help students across the state gain access to a college education. Mitchell Scholars are selected based on academic promise and financial need. Each year the Mitchell Institute selects one Mitchell Scholar from each of Maine’s 130 public high schools’ graduating classes.

Manasco was accompanied by 34 other students out of 2,400 Mitchell scholars to be specially recognized at this year’s gala. She was also named a 2015 Horatio Alger Maine Scholar by the Horatio Alger Association, which is awarded to students who have overcome adversity on their route to academic success, and a 2015 Dell Scholar, awarded by the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation to students who have overcome personal challenges.

A native of Poplar Bluff, Missouri, Manasco moved to Fairfield when she was 11 with her mother, stepfather, sister and two brothers in order to be closer to her maternal grandparents. The family moved to Maine without finding a place to live first, and Manasco says that the transition was “very, very bumpy.”

“We were homeless when we first got up here,” Manasco said. “I say that we moved in with my nana, but we lived in a tent in her backyard.”

Before finding more permanent housing in a trailer in Clinton, the family would take shelter in the tent or their car. Manasco was in sixth grade at Lawrence Junior High in Fairfield, where she found classes easy through eighth grade. The need to apply herself didn’t feel important compared to everything that was going on in her life.

But at Lawrence High School, as she progressed through her freshman and sophomore year, classes became more difficult and her grades began to fall into the B and C range.

Then in her sophomore year, her father died.

At this point, she said, the Upward Bound Program at UMF, a program that helps low-income students prepare for and succeed in college, changed the path of her academic future.

“Upward Bound made me realize I could work a lot harder. My freshman and sophomore year I didn’t care nearly as much,” Manasco said. “But then I started Upward Bound … my grades went from B’s and C’s to straight A’s.”

At the suggestion of her high school librarian, Manasco applied to and was accepted into the federally funded program, which provided her with the support she needed to excel in school. Through Upward Bound’s year-round program she received access to mentoring, academic support and financial support that was needed when applying to college, including covering the cost of her SATs and any college applications.

UMF’s Upward Bound program was founded in 1980 and serves more than 60 students from low-income families in western and central Maine.

For the three summers leading up to her freshman year in college, Manasco partook in Upward Bound’s summer program, spending six weeks of the summer living on the UMF campus. Manasco attributes the structure and support she received through her involvement with Upward Bound as what prepared her for college.

Elyse Pratt-Ronco, assistant director of the Upward Bound program at UMF, worked with Manasco through her participation in the program during high school and is enthusiastic that she picked UMF.

“We’re so glad she’s at UMF, because that means we get to see her more often,” Pratt-Ronco said.

The program at UMF serves 14 high schools in central and western Maine, assisting low-income first generation students in preparing for and obtaining a college education. Pratt-Ronco was able to watch Veronica’s progression through high school, college visits and now in her first year of her undergraduate program.

“She is just one of the most resilient students that we have worked with. We’re so proud of this achievement, of all of her achievements, in high school and now,” Pratt-Ronco said.

The commitment of Pratt-Ronco, and Upward Bound as a whole, in seeing her succeed is what stuck out to Manasco during her involvement in the program and inspired her to push herself academically.

“From 8:15 to 9:30 every night, you’re studying. And that really helped. It was like I have to be doing something academic during this time. Also, just the fact that they told me if I ever needed anything. My first meeting with Elyse, she told me, ‘You ever need anything to study — say that you have to have a purple pen to study — we will get you that purple pen.'”

When it came time to apply to colleges, Manasco looked at more than 20 schools. But spending her summers on the UMF campus, she knew the school would be a good fit.

“Living on the campus prepares you for college,” Manasco said. “I knew I’d be happy here.”

This past summer, during her six-week stay at UMF for Upward Bound, Manasco volunteered as an aide in the emergency room at Franklin Memorial Hospital.

At the Mitchell Center Gala, she was seated at a table with doctors who spoke with her about her medical ambitions as well as their own experiences helping others. The doctors asked her where she was thinking about applying for med school, but Manasco admits she hasn’t thought that far ahead yet. Instead, she is thinking critically about joining the Peace Corps after she graduates in four years. She is drawn to the opportunities that organization would provide in allowing her to help people globally.

“Sometimes I think that might be my downfall, because it’s a physical feeling I get when I see someone that is hurt or depressed. I am just drawn to try and help them,” Manasco said.

Lauren Abbate — 861-9252

[email protected]

Twitter: @Lauren_M_Abbate

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