MICHELLE BOUCHER BELIEVES everyone has a story and that story could reflect happiness, sorrow, trauma, loss — or any other emotion on the spectrum.

That is why the 21-year-old Colby College senior reserves judgment when she hears a person say something that might seem inappropriate or off, as there may be a reason behind it.

Boucher has seen and heard a lot in her four years at Colby and what she has learned is not just from books and lectures.

She spent a lot of time in the Waterville community during her college career, mentoring and tutoring middle school students, volunteering with children as part of Colby Cares About Kids program and even interning with a local psychiatrist, where she sat in on sessions with clients, visited patients in the hospital and did home visits.

The experience was an eye-opener for Boucher, who is majoring in psychology and minoring in human development and sociology.

“I learned so much about human resiliency, and I say that because each and every person who walked in the door — you think you’ve heard it all, the heartache and sorrow. All these people just want to be better and be their best selves. They just constantly get knocked down. It taught me so much about how I have so much to be grateful for, and humans are so resilient.”

As we sat on a bench Wednesday in the shadow of Miller Library on the Colby campus, Boucher told me she grew up in the western Maine town of Fryeburg with her father, an arborist, her mother, an administrative assistant for a small company, and a younger brother who is studying biomedical engineering at Boston University.

She graduated in 2013 from Fryeburg Academy where she was class president all four years and reveled in living in a small community where everyone knows and supports each other, rallies for worthy causes and, as Boucher says, allowed her to prosper. Her teachers were amazing, she said.

“I had a music teacher in high school who said from the first day I was looking at colleges, ‘Michelle,’ he said, ‘You were made for Colby.’ His wife had gone to Colby and he thought I should go, too.”

Colby helped with financial aid and she got grants and scholarships, including the George Mitchell Scholarship, which is given to a high school senior from every high school in the state. When she started at Colby four years ago, she and seven other students worked with the director of Colby’s Gender and Sexual Diversity Program to create a curriculum for educating freshmen and sophomores about sexual violence prevention and health promotion. The eight students became peer educators and taught 900 students about the issue in peer-led discussions. The program, which is required for students, was successful and grew to include 40 peer educators.

“We teach people about consent, Colby’s policies and procedures, how to be a good bystander and support people going through situations. It’s really been a great program, and it just got tremendous support.”

Boucher, who plays violin, trumpet and euphonium, a small tuba, also volunteered to help tutor music students when Waterville schools band and music teacher, Sue Barre, contacted Colby four years ago to see if anyone was interested.

“I jumped on it and I said, ‘Yes, I’d love to do it,'” Boucher recalled. “I went in and absolutely fell in love with Mrs. Barre and all the kids. They wanted a tutor for one year and I’ve been doing it all four years.”

Boucher also did her student teaching, required for her human development minor, with Barre, working with students in grades five through 12.

“It was one of the best things I’ve done,” she said. “I didn’t want to be a teacher, but being a teacher just showed me so much about what they do, and Mrs. Barre was incredible, so it was a special experience.”

Boucher also volunteered as a positive role model for children at the Albert S. Hall School, spending time with fourth and fifth graders, playing with them at recess, sharing lunch with them and talking about their lives.

All of her experiences at Colby and in the community led her to become passionate about mental health issues, sexual violence prevention and promoting health. Boucher has applied for multiple jobs in that field around the country in high schools and other educational institutions.

“It’s a huge issue and I have become very passionate about it,” she said. “Education and support need to be there when students need it.”

In addition to being a full-time student and working three jobs at Colby as a peer educator for sexual violence prevention, peer educator for student health on campus and research assistant in the psychology department, Boucher has become known among students and faculty as a mental health advocate and leader who seeks to reduce stigma around mental health by promoting openness and encouraging people to talk about it.

“I don’t think we talk about mental health enough and I think it’s important. It wasn’t something I thought about until I came to Colby.”

Boucher entered a speech competition hosted in March by Phi Beta Kappa at Colby and won. Her speech focused on her experiences both at Colby and in the Waterville community, working with Barre in Waterville schools and learning from her that everyone has a story. She also spoke about how critical it is to focus on mental health issues.

“It’s just so important to talk about it. If you talk about it, people will talk about it, but if you don’t talk about it, the conversation won’t start.”

Boucher got an award for being in the Colby Wind Ensemble, and this month, which is Mental Health Awareness Month nationwide, she netted Colby’s top student award, the Condon Medal, for constructive citizenship and making significant contributions to college life. She was chosen by a vote of the senior class and that vote was approved by faculty.

As she graduates on Sunday, Boucher, the first generation in her family to graduate from a four-year college, will remember not only her experiences at Colby, but also in the Waterville community. She is grateful for both and says academics impacted her work in the community, and her experiences in the community informed her academics — in a huge way.

“Colby has been amazing,” she said. “It’s had its ups and downs as chunks of time do, but the opportunities I’ve had and the connections I’ve made have been incredible. I’m just so happy I chose Colby. If you take advantage and you find what you’re passionate about and you find people who will support you in finding that, you can’t go wrong here.”

As Boucher leaves college, she does so with mixed emotions — but says she is ready.

“I’m excited because I know I’m well-prepared for whatever is next but also a little sad because I’ve made such great connections. But that’s part of it. They catapult you off to the next step.”

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter 29 years. Her column appears here Mondays. She may be reached at [email protected]. For previous Reporting Aside columns, go to centralmaine.com.

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