Nicole Padilla pads across the campus of Thomas College wearing boots, leggings, and a thick, dark sweatshirt bearing the school's name. It's clear as she heads inside the Harold Alfond Academic Center and sidles up to a small coffee bar to order her first shot of caffeine for the day, that Nicole is at home here. Thomas is a small, friendly business and liberal arts college in Waterville, Maine, a town that sits thirty minutes north of Augusta, the state's capital.
Nicole is a freshman, in her second semester, studying psychology. She says she always wanted to go to college, but when she was actually accepted at Thomas, the idea of leaving her rural hometown, her mother and friends seemed overwhelming. She says, "I had been in Jobs for Maine's Graduates since I was a sophomore. My Specialist, Shannon Bishop, was the most supportive person in my life. She never gave up on me. And, the thought of leaving that support, leaving my hometown and my mother, was pretty scary". Then, Nicole learned that she could have the best of both worlds; she could go to Thomas and still be in Jobs for Maine’s Graduates (JMG).
This past fall, through a collaboration involving JMG, Thomas College, and the Unity Foundation, the first college-level JAG Specialist position was created. Matt Reynolds, a 6-year JMG veteran was hired as the College and Career Transition Specialist to support JAG college students as they navigate the often challenging path to graduation. Matt says, "I'm their one, big constant. The students have graduated from high school; many have moved away from home. They're facing major adjustments in their lives, but the one thing they can still depend on is JAG's support." For Nicole, this news was a huge relief. "When I found out there would be a JAG Specialist at Thomas, I was ecstatic! I immediately felt better. I wasn't going to be alone."
The decision to form this partnership was an easy one for all concerned. Jobs for Maine’s Graduates and Thomas share important values. They believe in investing in students as individuals, with different needs and unique goals. They work with similar populations – the majority of whom are, or would be, first-generation college students. And, they are committed to not only handing out degrees and diplomas, but to making sure students have the skills and education they need to succeed in today's job market. Craig Larrabee, JMG's President & CEO, says, "Maine is facing a workforce crisis because of the skills gap. This partnership will help us achieve one of our fundamental goals- for more JMG students to continue their education beyond high school. We believe in the leadership and vision of Thomas College, and that, together, we can help these young people overcome whatever challenges may stand between them and a degree."
Back inside the student academic center, Matt and Nicole are talking about a less- than- stellar grade Nicole just got on a psychology test. This is what Matt does. He's on the front lines with these students; checking on their grades like a home-away-from-home parent; connecting them with academic help, and counseling them on any problems they may be having adjusting to campus life.
For Nicole, the first college hurdle came up fast. Toward the end of her first semester, she learned she had a bill – and she had to either pay it, or leave school. She was already working and her mother was holding down two jobs – but it wasn't enough. Nicole says she became stressed, her school work began to suffer, and she went to see Matt. “I had no idea if or how Matt could help. Going to him was like an instinct…. at least there was someone I could talk to. Several days later he calls me into his office. He had been making calls and doing some research and he actually found a scholarship that took care of my bill. I couldn’t believe it. Again, just when I was ready to give up, JAG shows up."
Matt says it's the little successes like this that remind him he's making a difference. He's excited about keeping the students like Nicole in school, but also helping them plan for careers, by connecting them to internships, job shadows, and other career preparation opportunities. Today, Matt works with 58 JAG students on campus, and they're keeping him pretty busy. In fact, he realizes he has just enough time to get back to his office where he's meeting another student looking for advice. Meanwhile, Nicole has drained her latte and says it’s time to start working on a paper due in a couple of days. "It's a lot of work, but there's no question in my mind that I'm going to graduate. It's going to be hard, but it'll be worth it in the end, because I'll be able to pursue the career I want, and my dreams will come true."
We would like to encourage students interested in pursuing a college degree to consider Thomas College. The College and Career Transition Specialist is on campus to ensure JAG students from across the country get the support and guidance they need.