Elizabeth Muana, originally from South Sudan, came with her mother and two sisters to the U.S. She is a freshman at the University of Southern Maine and a Promise Scholarship recipient. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Elizabeth Muana remembers her reaction last spring when she checked her email and unexpectedly found out she was receiving a scholarship to the University of Southern Maine that would help cover tuition costs and allow her to go to school without taking out any loans.

“I started crying,” said Muana, 18. “I said, ‘Mommy, I got the scholarship.’ I was super excited because I didn’t think I would get it.”

The oldest daughter of a single mother with three girls, Muana said the scholarship was especially meaningful to her because without it she wouldn’t be able to afford college. She knew she couldn’t ask her mother to help pay for school and while she thought about taking a year off to work and save money, she also knew it would be less likely she would go back to school after a gap year.

Nine months later, Muana is starting her second semester studying public health and economics at USM, where she’s among 58 students currently attending through the Promise Scholarship. The program, which started three years ago, is a “bridging the gap” scholarship that fills in the cost of tuition and fees for primarily low-income and first-generation Maine students after other financial aid or scholarships so students can graduate with little or no debt. Perhaps more importantly, it also offers academic and social support and a community for the recipients.

Elizabeth Muana and her mother Lilly Basoronga pose for a portrait in South Portland on Friday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

The program recently hit a fundraising milestone that will allow it to become permanently endowed and grow to serve cohorts of 25 students each year or 100 students at any given time. It also comes at a critical time as students in general, and especially low-income and first-generation students, are facing challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although it’s still too early to say what impact the program will have on successfully getting students to graduate, so far Promise students have stayed enrolled at rates that exceed those of the general population.

For the class entering in 2018, 94 percent of Promise Scholars returned to USM for their second semester compared to 87 percent of other first-year USM students. During their sophomore year, 83 percent of the same cohort returned to USM compared to 68 percent of the general population. One-hundred percent of students across the Promise cohorts stayed enrolled from the spring to fall semesters last year despite COVID-19.

“Students are willing to work hard and do whatever it takes to earn a degree, but often it’s not about their ability to do it, it’s about the circumstances that they come from that can really impact their ability to progress,” said Daniel Barton, the Promise Scholars program coordinator at USM. “So (what’s) at the heart of Promise is to address those challenges and help them overcome those obstacles so that it feels achievable.”

The scholarship program formally started three years ago but has roots that go back further. About 10 years ago, a Scarborough couple, Carolyn and Dick McGoldrick, were interested in helping students from the Boys & Girls Club of Southern Maine continue their education and decided to anonymously pay for scholarships.

“There were just some students who seemed to rise above their circumstances and I would think when they turn 18, ‘What’s next for these kids?'” said Carolyn McGoldrick, who was on the board of the Boys & Girls Club at the time.

The McGoldricks initially worked with USM and the clubs privately to find students for whom they could pay tuition, room and board. Carolyn McGoldrick said she grew concerned, though, when two of the students who were awarded scholarships failed to stay enrolled.

“They were really great students,” said McGoldrick, 72, a former second-grade teacher in Gorham. “They were really involved in the Portland club, so we were saying, ‘What are we doing wrong here?’ and we learned through working with the counseling staff at USM that just because these students had the ability, that they had great GPA’s, they didn’t have the social capital to succeed in school. There was no one at home to help them.”

At the same time, the McGoldricks’ generosity attracted the attention of USM President Glenn Cummings and the then-president of the USM Foundation, George Campbell, who asked if they might consider working with the university to expand their support. From there it was a team effort between the university, the foundation, the McGoldricks and friends in the field of education who came up with the groundwork for what the scholarship now looks like, said Carolyn McGoldrick.

Two students, Mohamed “Mo” Awale and Brianna DiDonato-Duran, whom the McGoldricks supported early on, also provided feedback that helped shape the current program. DiDonato-Duran grew up in Portland and was active in the Boys & Girls Club on Cumberland Avenue, where she first met the McGoldricks, though she had no idea they were paying for her college education until after she graduated with her master’s degree in 2013.

“One of the hardest things I found when going to college is my parents didn’t necessarily understand what I was going through,” said DiDonato-Duran, 30, who was the first in her family to go to college and is now a special education teacher at Glickman Academy in Portland. “My dad was very strict and wanted me to finish school and study, but there was also frustration. Sometimes I would come up with doing homework and being exhausted or if you can’t figure something out, you can’t necessarily ask your parents if they don’t quite understand what you’re studying.”

When the program formally launched in 2017, the goal was to raise $15 million to support 25 students per year with annual $5,000 scholarships. But McGoldrick said they learned the financial need wasn’t one-size-fits-all. Some students had other scholarships and financial aid and needed as little as $500 to make college possible. Others needed their full tuition covered.

Today the average award is $3,700 per year or around $15,000 total over four years – almost 40 percent of the cost of full tuition. Eighty-six percent of recipients are first-generation college students and 66 percent are eligible for Pell grants, which typically don’t have to be repaid. Fifty-five percent of Promise scholars were born outside of the United States and some are asylum seekers who aren’t eligible for federal grants and scholarships.

The program is one of the most accessible local opportunities for asylum-seeking students in Maine to get financial aid, especially if they aren’t citizens or permanent residents, said Tim Cronin, director of Make it Happen!, a college readiness program for multilingual students in Portland Public Schools. “We have a huge influx of refugees coming here,” Cronin said. “Sometimes they’re astounded to find they don’t qualify (for federal aid) and it’s crushing for them, so thank God for the Promise.”

In addition to the financial support, Promise recipients come in as a cohort and attend a one-week immersion program prior to the start of classes as a way of building connections and easing the transition to college. For their first year, students are assigned an upperclassmen mentor in a similar major and enroll as a cohort in a one-credit seminar that builds community, provides service and leadership work and touches on financial literacy.

Throughout their time at USM recipients also have access to the Promise coordinator in addition to their academic adviser and can request use of an emergency fund that provides one-time grants for things like textbooks, snow tires or rent – hidden costs that can derail a student and hinder their ability to be successful.

“I’m not aware of other scholarships that provide support like that,” Cronin said. “It seems to me it’s a program, not just a layout of financial support, and I think that’s equally valuable. Yes, you can get the money but it strikes me as comprehensive support so a student has a good chance of succeeding.”

Nicole Umurerwa is a Promise Scholarship recipient. The University of Southern Maine is hoping to grow the number of students it serves through the program for low-income and first-generation students after it hit a key fundraising milestone. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Nicole Umurerwa, a Promise scholar and a junior at USM, came to the U.S. from Rwanda by herself when she was 16, hoping to pursue her education. She lived with an aunt while attending Deering High School, where she learned about Promise through Make it Happen!

“Being an immigrant to a country, that’s the biggest challenge,” said Umurerwa, 21. “You don’t really know what you’re doing and then in addition to that there’s the lack of familiarity with so many aspects of a college education and academics and even outside of that, community involvement. If you’re a new person to the community there’s no guidance. You don’t have your mom on your back telling you about scholarships. You have to figure that out on your own.”

When there was a misunderstanding about class credits and she was unsure how to communicate about it with her adviser, Umurerwa said Promise helped her navigate the situation and get it cleared up. She’s also using the program to help her find an internship for her senior year.

Muana, who is originally from South Sudan, said the program helped her adjust to college, especially now during the COVID-19 pandemic when most of her classes are online. She’s currently living at home, working three days per week as a behavioral health professional and helping to take care of her two younger sisters while they’re in hybrid learning. The situation is typical for Promise scholars, who are often working, paying rent and bills and caring for family while going to school.

At the start of the school year Muana was assigned a mentor, whom she describes as being “like a big sister.” They check in once per week on the phone and talk about classes, work and picking a major. So far it’s been tremendously helpful.

“When I was in high school my teachers would say, ‘When you go to college no one is going to tell you to do your work. No one cares. You’re on your own,'” Muana said. “Having this person support me and say ‘How are you doing?’ (is helpful). No one ever asks me ‘How are you doing?’ It’s just like, ‘Thank you so much.’ I needed this.”

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