USM Senior Anna Chiu, the student speaker at the USM commencement, hopes to inspire graduating students to keep USM values of inclusiveness and understanding in mind as they head out into the world.
Chiu is a health sciences major with a minor in biology. She transferred to USM from Simmons College, where she was a nursing student, in 2012.
For Chiu, that sentiment of inclusiveness and understanding is very important. “I won’t ever forget writing an article about depression once, and one guy emailed me and thanked me for speaking out about it because of its stigma. I was very touched and honored to have helped him,” she said, referring to her time as a writer and sports editor for the Free Press.
Chiu has fought her own battles with depression and hopes to help other students. “Nobody should be ashamed if they are feeling depressed. I’ve met the most caring students, professors and staff at USM, and honestly I’ve never felt more like myself than here,” Chiu said.
Chiu will give her speech at the USM commencement on May 10 at the Cumberland Civic Center.
Initially, Chiu struggled to find the words for her speech. “What helped me and got me to start writing was reminiscing on my USM experience and how I’ve changed since transferring here,” said Chiu, who submitted her speech a day later than the deadline.
“I don’t particularly like the idea of talking about myself because I think the duty of the commencement speaker is to represent the student body and showcase just how amazing we all are,” she said.
“I wanted a speech that was emotionally captivating yet powerful. I spent hours just sitting at my computer trying to think of something meaningful that I could write about,” Chiu said. Eventually she settled on the theme of personal identity and how USM can change its students.
In her speech, Chiu explains that she is the daughter of Chinese immigrants. Her parents were poor , she said, and her father was forced to steal food and her mother did not own shoes until the age of 19. Her parents fled China to escape poverty and famine. “I was born and raised in Portland and even though I grew up poor, it blows my mind every time to think how much can change in just one generation. My parents probably never would’ve imagined that their children would one day prosper in America when they were our age.” Chiu hopes that her parents story will inspire the outgoing USM class and send a message of hope and inspire them to think about their own identity.
Chiu also has a word of advice for all the students at USM. “Honestly, just breathe. I know it’s simple but I think it’s true that we are our own worst critic. We need to remember to breathe and stay in the present moment and not be so hard on ourselves.”
Saman Baghestani has proposed an alternative to purchasing and selling books for college students in South Portland. It’s working so well, he’s bringing it across the bridge to USM.
Baghestani came up with the idea for a book-swap website, which he named the South Portland Book Exchange––or SoPoBooks.com. With the help of his computer programmer friend Jason McDonald, he was able to create a site where users post books they no longer need and request books they are going to need. When a match is made, the site connects the dots, and students are welcome to barter, sell, negotiate or trade favors, such as yard work, for textbooks.
“The idea came to me in a sort of ‘light bulb’ moment,” said Baghestani. “After constantly hearing students complaining about book pricing, I thought, ‘books that are not needed by one student will be needed by others. So why not create a place for students where they can buy and sell books in a timely manner?’”
Although websites such as Amazon and Craigslist have college textbooks for reasonable prices, SoPoBooks.com can make the buying process much easier by allowing students to choose what they pay for their textbooks.
“I have used the website twice as a consumer,” said Baghestani. “After selling my old books and acquiring new ones, I only spent a total of $20.00 for the necessary readings.”
When you request a book, you’ll get an email telling you when it is available, and if you post a book you’ll get emailed when someone wants it. “This whole process takes no more than a minute and a half,” Baghestani said. “Rather than have to search through endless pages of results, the website does all the work for you.”
This can be especially helpful when trying to sell books. “Buy-back programs at campus bookstores will take your $142.00 textbook and give you $14.00 for it. SoPoBooks.com does not work the same way as campus bookstores, because the transaction terms are 100 percent entirely determined by the students.”
Nicki Piaget, the USM bookstore director, said that this is not always the case. “Students can get a lot of money back for their books. The prices are based on whether the faculty are using it the next semester. If it hasn’t been ordered, USM doesn’t buy it for resale. If we don’t know if the textbooks are going to be used, we purchase for a different wholesaler, and therefore the prices go down a bit.”
However, Baghestani says that you will never have to wonder what you’ll get in return for books you want to sell, because you have a lot of payment options. “We feel that by cutting out the ‘middle person’ [in this case the bookstore], students can save and earn a lot more money with college books. We believe this is a huge reason for college students to prefer our site over the book store.”
Baghestani said that some students have expressed concerns regarding the buying and selling of old edition books. However, he also said this is not something to be worried about. Students are able to put the author, book title or the ISBN number into their search to make sure they get the exact books needed for classes.
Although the website was primarily intended for students at Southern Maine Community College, Baghestani decided early on in December to branch out to USM in order help others buy and sell books at reasonable prices. He says he hopes to make this website available nationwide in the future. “This method of buying and selling books is working for a ton of students” he said.
Baghestani hopes that every student at USM will look into the website and consider the financial benefits of buying and selling from other students. “The account is free, and it connects people” he said. “Not only is this a time saver, but you are also going to get a much better deal.
The University of Maine System will require proof of health insurance before students enroll in classes beginning next fall.
The new Student Health Insurance Policy will kick in this August and eligible students will automatically be enrolled in the program and have the $942 annual premium cost added to their student account.
“There is a requirement to have health insurance in this country, and we’re trying to make it as a affordable as possible for students,” said Lisa Belanger, the director of Health Services at USM. She said one of the reasons for this new requirement is the federal Affordable Care Act and that the university wants to make sure all students have access to health care while they pursue their education.
“Before, we had a student health plan, but it was not required,” said Belanger. “Insurance companies are not going to support that method of enrollment anymore.”
All students will be required to enroll if they fit certain criteria: taking nine credits or more as an undergraduate and six credits or more as a graduate student. If a student fits either of these or doesn’t already have insurance, they will have to enroll in the new plan. Students already enrolled in a health care plan can opt out of this plan by signing a waiver before the first of October.
“I was dropped from my parents’ insurance just this past winter, so I’m really grateful to have this available to me,” said junior history major Amanda Woods.
“I really like the the university is offering this plan. It sounds cheap and easy,” said junior psychology major Ben Pohl. “I don’t know if I’m into it being completely automatic though.”
Pohl said that he is embarrassed to know so little about healthcare options.
“I just haven’t paid any attention,” said Pohl when asked about the Affordable Care Act.
An informational session on ACA was held at USM at the beginning of March, but few students were in attendance. Jake Grindle of Western Maine Community Action noted at the event that most students would still be covered under their parents’ insurance.
“This is an affordable rate for students and there is a value to having health insurance,” said Belanger, who recalled meeting with a student last week who said they were paying up to $500 a month for coverage.
While an official notice hadn’t been sent out yet from the system office last week, a short notice explaining the plan had been posted on the USM website. So far, many students are not aware of the plan.
“I heard a friend of mine mention it in passing earlier in the week, but they didn’t know much,” said undeclared freshman Pat Forester. “I’m covered by my parents, but I definitely want to know more about it.”
Belanger noted that getting the word out to students is a top priority right now.
“We’re going to try to do everything that we can to get this information out,” she said. “We will pursue as many ways to market this as possible.”
When Belanger came to speak about the plan at the student senate meeting on Friday, April 18, some senators expressed concerns about making the option to opt-out well known.
“I’m a bit concerned. People tend to not opt-out of things,” said Will Gattis, a senior economics major and former senate vice-chair. “I want this opt-out option to be 100 percent clear to students so they aren’t surprised by another bill on their account.”
Belanger said she knows there will be issues when the opt-out deadline rolls around and that she couldn’t guarantee that every single student was going to know and understand the new policy.
She said issues with opting-out or any other problems that arise will have to be handled on a case-by-case basis and that more information on that will be released by the UMaine system at a later date.
“I would say this is a shift in thinking, it’s a shift that’s happening nationally, and that USM is going to be a part of it,” said Belanger.
USM’s executive director of public affairs Robert Caswell has announced that he will be retiring this June after working at USM for over 34 years. He responded to an inquiry from the Free Press reminiscing on his time at the university, and talked about some of his fondest memories.
After graduating USM in 1974 with a bachelor’s degree in history, Caswell set out to become a newspaper reporter in Maine. After working six years in the industry, he became interested in public relations and decided to see what job opportunities were available. Caswell first applied to USM in hopes of getting a job in public relations. Due to the fact that there was no such job title, he continued working as a newspaper reporter. Six months later, Caswell received a letter from the university inviting him to apply for an opening that had just been created, where he began his work in February of 1980.
“When I started here at USM, a career in public relations meant primarily that you worked with the news media. People who are in this career now are dealing with community relations, legislative relations, and internal/external communications,” Caswell said.
In 1980, USM was transitioning from a school of education to a five year teacher program baccalaureate. The program they were piloting was designed specifically for individuals who had already attended a four year program for another career, but wanted to become teachers, regardless of what their first degree was in.
Caswell believed the transition was a newsworthy topic. After a constant effort to promote the university’s transition through the Portland Press Herald with no result, he decided to talk to a writer for the New York Times.
Not long after, a huge feature story on the university ran in the newspaper. “The fondest memory I have while working at USM is picking up the Portland Press Herald and seeing that they had run it on the front page. After all the effort I had put it, it was nice to see they finally publicized it. That was just mind-blowing,” he said.
When asked what he would miss the least, Caswell replied, “I’m not going to miss the communication challenges associated with budget problems and issues. I’ve welcomed that challenge time and time again, but I’m not going to miss that. I will, however, miss working with people across USM, who despite what we’re going through right now, are incredibly dedicated to this university.”
Over the years, Caswell has seen a lot of change happen on campus. “Working at USM has given me a much deeper appreciation for the value of higher education in terms of what it can do for individuals.”
Upon retiring, Caswell says he has no definite plans. “Well, the short honest answer is that I don’t have a clue. When I retire I will be almost 62 years old, so I’m still relatively young. My wife is also retiring, so I’m sure we’ll do something. It’s exciting and sort of scary at same time, but I’m looking forward to it.”
Caswell has a few words of wisdom to give to students before he retires in June. “Don’t give up on USM,” he said, “because you can really get a great education here and you can have the opportunity to work with faculty and staff who are deeply committed to their subject and this university.”
Although he is sad to be leaving, Caswell says he is ready for this next chapter in his life. “For all the challenges facing USM, someone once told me that working in public higher education is a privilege. Even though it was difficult at times, I’ve spent a wonderful 34 years here, and I’ve had a really good run.” As of right now, no decision has been made as to who will take his place.
The semester may be coming to an end, but the Student Government Association is still working on their biggest task–– passing next year’s budget.
Due to low enrollment at the university, there were less student activity funds for the senate to work with than the previous semester. An emergency meeting to balance the budget took place on March 15, and the senate worked with entities such as the Board of Student Organizations, Gorham Events Board and Portland Events Board to make cuts and create a workable budget for the rest of the semester.
Now their task is to create a budget for next year that works for all entities and groups with far less money. The senate isn’t expecting more student activity funds to come in next semester and is budgeting for $276,940 compared to last year’s budget of $337,694.
“This is a very conservative budget,” said former finance committee chair Tyler Boothby. “This budget was created so that we don’t have to have another one of those emergency meetings next year.”
When the 42nd Student Senate held their last meeting on April 18 and turned responsibilities over to the new senators of the 43rd senate, Boothby recommended that they pass the budget as is, saying that there had been a lot of eyes on the project, and they believed it was the best option.
As the current budget recommendation stands, BSO’s budget will be cut by $16,800, PEB by $13,601, and GEB by $33,805. The cuts to GEB would be a 66 percent budget reduction, leaving the board $17,175 to provide weekly programming for students all year.
Incoming GEB executive chair Chelsea Tibbetts sent a document to members of the senate titled “The Case for GEB,” which cited leadership development, reduction of costs and community engagement over the past two years as reasons to reconsider changing the budget recommendation. The letter calls for an alternative cut of 12 to 18 percent of the budget, which would leave the board with around $45,000 for the year.
“All GEB programs are almost exclusively for entertainment and community building purposes, and that contributes greatly to the sense of community and activity on the Gorham campus,” Tibbetts wrote. “[The cuts] would have a substantial and long-lasting negative impact on the development and growth of GEB.”
Tibbetts wrote that such a large cut would result in a significant relapse in the group, as members have worked hard and evolved the board over the past three years. She wrote that with so little funding, GEB would be unable to provide as high quality events as students have come to expect and that they would have to start from scratch.
When the budget was brought before the senate last week, it was tabled immediately at the request of senate treasurer Jason Blanco.
“There are some other things we need to review before we pass this budget,” said Blanco. “We may not be doing the students justice by passing this budget.”
The budget recommendations will be on the senate’s agenda again for their meeting this Friday.
A student rally last Friday in support of USM staff facing layoffs attached a few faces to the rumors of shadowy eliminations of USM staff members as a part of the university’s most recent attempt to cut costs.
Though the majority of the faculty retrenchments and eliminations announced as part of the same initiative have been reversed, staff cuts have proceeded throughout the year.
“Staff cuts are going on behind the scenes, I don’t even know who’s been cut,” said USM library employee and virtual imaging associate Adinah Barnett at the rally, which the #USMFuture group organized.
“I’m glad to be speaking as a current USM employee, and I sure hope to stay that way,” Barnett said.
Barnett was one of three current staff members to speak at the rally, The speakers also included one former staff member–Will Dunlay, the former director of energy and utilities in Facilities Management.
“People are also scared to even come to the event,” said junior women and gender studies major and one of the event’s organizers Meaghan LaSala to the Free Press afterwards. “I think that points to the precariousness of the position people are in.”
There have been 26 staff layoffs in fiscal year 2014, comprised of 15 salaried staff members and 11 hourly staff members, according to Executive Director of Public Affairs Bob Caswell.
“Certainly, if current trends hold, I think it’s certain we’ll be looking at additional cuts in [fiscal year 2015],” Caswell told the Free Press.
However, he explained, no further staff cuts will take place until after May 31, which is when the Faculty Senate’s alternative cost-saving measures for the university are due to be presented to Kalikow.
“We’ll evaluate those cost-saving alternatives after May 31, and the next step would be to make a determination on any additional staff cuts,” Caswell said.
Jim Bradley, president of the USM chapter of UMPSA, the professional staff union, expanded on what those cost-saving measures might look like. “[Kalikow] said that the Faculty Senate must come up with $1.2 million in faculty compensation savings as an alternative to the 12 rescinded retrenchments. She will not accept savings they come up with from other areas as she still believes we have too many faculty, and she’s given the senate a chance to propose their own cuts,” Bradley told the Free Press in an email.
Caswell confirmed the faculty recommendations must come from academic programs, and added that the amount of savings the faculty senate were expected to produce was, in fact $1.26 million.
LaSala told the Free Press she felt that the fact that there will be considerably fewer students on campus after the end of the spring semester played into the May 31 date.
Kalikow responded to LaSala’s statement in an email. “There will be far fewer students on campus, but that’s a reflection on the fiscal year schedule, not on any kind of effort to delay decisions until after the end of the academic year,” she said. “The fiscal year ends on June 30. It’s always a mad rush this time of year to finalize budget decisions. This year has been especially tough so decisions are getting pushed through commencement and beyond as we prioritize and evaluate cost-saving strategies.”
Kalikow also responded to a sentiment that pervaded the rally and was expressed by a majority of the speakers––that the cuts should be made ‘from to top,’ that is, they should be cuts to the salaries and positions of upper-level administrators, rather than faculty and staff.
The sentiment was echoed by Bradley. “We have too many administrators,” he said. “If Theo is sincere in trying to right-size the university, she can’t just focus on faculty and support staff, she also has to reduce the number of non-represented administrative staff as well.”
Kalikow noted a number of upper-level administrator positions that have been eliminated since late in fiscal year 2013. “On the other hand, I think it can be penny wise and pound foolish to dial back salaries at any level to the point where you have trouble attracting the highest-quality candidate you can afford,” she wrote.
After May 31, Caswell said, the administration will look at staff cuts again, but the specifics of those cuts, he said, will be left to the discretion of individual units, although those units might be assigned financial targets.
Two weeks ago, Dean Lynn Kuzma of the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences told the Free Press that she had been told that staff cuts would not impact her college’s reorganization, a step Provost Stevenson has asked all of the colleges at the university to begin.
For students involved in #USMFuture, said LaSala, the next step is to continue to work as a part of a state-wide coalition to make higher education funding reform a ballot issue in the coming election season.
In terms of what’s next for specific staff cuts, Caswell said, “I wouldn’t expect many additional staff cuts in the remains of the fiscal year. There may be, there may not.”