Story posted December 07, 2004
A mere 70 miles separates Bowdoin College from the Penobscot Bay islands of Vinalhaven and North Haven, but for some students, it might as well be a million.
Vinalhaven, a small, isolated community off the coast of Rockland, has a lucrative fishing industry that beckons. Many students don't aspire to college. For them, it isn't necessary...and worse, it isn't cool.
Members of the Bowdoin men's basketball team hope to change their minds.
In November, thirteen members of the team braved the first snow of the season and a churning two-hour ferry ride to visit Vinalhaven, where they met with students, parents, and community members from both islands. Their mission was to encourage students to consider college - and to pursue their dreams, whatever they may be.
And they took their message to court - the basketball court, that is.
Their visit was the first part of a college-aspiration project between Bowdoin and the two islands that was initiated, largely, by Mike Felton, Bowdoin class of 2000, who heads the school at Vinalhaven.
"Not a big percentage of Vinalhaven kids go on to college, and of those who do, not many make it through the four years," said Felton.
Eager to foster a formal connection between Bowdoin and the island schools, Felton approached his alma mater with the idea of enlisting Bowdoin students to serve as mentors to island students, help promote early college awareness, and set up campus visits. The project is supported by a grant from the Foundation for Excellent Schools' Century Program, which is designed to partner colleges across the country with K-12 schools that traditionally don't send a lot of kids on to college.
Because of the popularity of basketball among the island communities, it was a natural fit to combine basketball with college aspirations, and Bowdoin's basketball team and their coach, Tim Gilbride, were happy to become Bowdoin's "goodwill ambassadors."
"They all enjoy basketball, and everyone was into it," confirmed co-captain Sean Walker '05. "For a town that small, basketball has become a common ground for people. It's almost like a town meeting, where everyone comes together. There's a real sense of pride and unity."
The gathering included over 50 fifth through twelfth graders from both schools, families, and community members. The Bowdoin team got things rolling by playing a scrimmage among themselves, then yielding the court to the island kids for a game. In addition to enthusiastically cheering on the island kids, the Bowdoin players also talked with families, teachers and community members in the stands. The Bowdoin students then led small discussion groups during a pizza lunch.
"We talked about a wide range of topics," said Nick Ordway '06. "I had a younger group of kids that struggled to open up. So we talked about the Red Sox, our families, our pets. I [also] stressed the importance of maintaining a balance between academics and athletics, emphasizing that in the long run academics are what's important to their future."
"They were asking us what our high school experiences were like," added Walker. "Theirs is very different, because most of us went to four-year high schools. They asked me what I wanted to do after college. I told them what I was interested in, and that conversation morphed into talking about their dreams."
"The kids wanted to know where the players were from," said Felton. "Some of the players were from places like Arkansas and Iowa, and the kids asked what it was like transitioning from that. They wanted to know what their classes were like, and how they got into basketball. Going from a small, rural school to a large, diverse campus can be a culture shock.
"The Bowdoin players helped our kids start to understand what college is like," added Felton. "That's what we need. Get the kids thinking about college as early as possible, get them to think, 'This seems like a pretty cool idea.' Introduce them to the fact that there's more to college than just [the same old] classes: there are sports, and friends, and clubs, and choosing classes because you're interested in them. Making this kind of connection, establishing such a relationship, is the first bridge to college for these kids."
Vinalhaven Island, about nine-by-five miles of hilly terrain, has a year-round population of 1,200. Most residents work in the lobster fishing industry, currently a very profitable part of the island's economy -- about one-fifth of Maine's total lobster catch comes through Vinalhaven.
The K-12 school serves 213 students, with 63 in the high school grades, and 13 high school seniors. Most Vinalhaven children grow up working with their families in the lobster business. Some middle and high school students even own their own boats and traps, and can earn tens of thousands of dollars lobstering during the summer. Many see their post-high school career paths already laid out before them, and it doesn't require a college diploma.
For Vinalhaven, the purpose of the Bowdoin partnership isn't necessarily to change the students' minds about carving out a career on the island; rather, it's to instill in them the knowledge that such a career isn't their only choice, and that they shouldn't be afraid to pursue other interests.
"Our job here is to help our students understand their options and develop the skills they will need to succeed in whatever they choose to do," said Felton. "They can succeed off the island, if that's what they choose to do. Even if you go away to college for four years, you can still come back to the island, and you bring back four years of valuable experience to draw from. If you want to do something else down the road, you're prepared and you've got that diploma in your back pocket."
North Haven, about 12 miles offshore, is the smaller of the two islands, measuring about nine by three miles, with a year-round population that hovers at around 330. The North Haven Community School is the smallest public K-12 school in Maine, and currently enrolls 57 students. Sixteen students are in the high school grades 9-12, and four students make up this year's senior class.
While many North Haven students do go on to post-secondary schools, principal Barney Hallowell would like the number to be higher, and he believes the partnership with Bowdoin can help make that happen.
"Coach Gilbride gave a wonderful talk about pursuing your interests and dreams," said Hallowell. "He talked about being a part of a team and the importance of finding out what you like to do - whether it be music or science or sports - and pursuing it. He made quite an impression on the kids."
If feedback from the island students is any indication, Bowdoin's men's basketball team scored big: "Since [the team's visit] the kids have been talking about it constantly," said Felton. "They come to my door every day to tell me how much it meant to them, how excited they are, and that they really want to keep it going."
The team's visit to Vinalhaven was just the first stage of what will be an ongoing project to cement a relationship between Bowdoin and the island schools. Plans are currently being firmed up for the Bowdoin women's basketball team to travel to North Haven in January 2005 for a more extensive overnight mentoring trip to include basketball clinics and community involvement. In February, all 20 of the island ninth graders will come to visit Bowdoin for a real taste of college life.
"I can't stress enough how much [all this] means to the kids," said Felton, "how much developing a relationship with a college mentor opens their eyes. It has really had an impact."