Sabrina Freeman '21
Sabrina Freeman studied abroad in Barcelona in the fall 2019 semester. She was eager to return for a visit in March 2020 during her spring break week. Bags packed and flight airborne, little did she know she was heading directly into one of the world’s early hot spots for the spread of the coronavirus.
At first, Sabrina said neither she nor her parents were too worried about the virus, because it seemed to be happening in other parts of the world. “I had been following the news, but it didn’t seem to be a big deal at the time,” Sabrina shared. But when cases started exploding across Europe, the Spanish government was quick to act.
Just two days after her 3,600 mile trek from Portland to Spain, the country issued a state of alert. Flights in and out of the country were quickly suspended and citizens were asked to quarantine at home. Sabrina had to quickly consider her options - return home among the chaos or remain in Barcelona and ride out the pandemic with her host family with whom she had grown close. “It was scary for my family, but after I knew I could extend my travel visa and that USM classes were moving online for the remainder of the semester, I made the decision to stay,” she said. “My parents were anxious, but I felt safe where I was.”
Making the split-second decision to stay in Spain afforded her a spontaneous opportunity to more fully immerse herself in the culture and the language. She had just completed a study abroad experience at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona just a few months earlier. She earned the competitive Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship and used her Promise Scholarship to afford the experience. She studied Economics, Political Science, and Spanish language courses while exploring the historic sites of Barcelona. She was drawn to the city and the idea of continuing her adventure was all too enticing - even in the midst of an emerging pandemic.
Focused on finishing her full slate of spring courses, the online modality proved challenging. “It was overwhelming to find the energy to keep up with the coursework without the social interaction I was used to,” she shared. The six-hour time difference was a particular challenge. “I was staying up late to participate in my live Linguistics class sometimes until 11 o’clock at night.” Equally challenging was finding a quiet space to study and reliable internet access with two full-time working adults and another college student in the house. “The first month of the full lockdown was truly the hardest.” Yet, once quarantine restrictions were loosened and people could venture outside during specified blocks of time each day - getting out for a run - became a ritual and provided Sabrina the break she needed to focus on her assignments each day and finish her semester strong.
What was meant to be a one-week visit has turned into a three-months and counting adventure. “I am so thankful for the time I have spent in Spain and my host family,” she said. This summer she has continued taking online coursework and is waiting for the right time to return to the U.S., but for now is enjoying her experience and time abroad.
With her academic drive and the support of the Promise Scholarship Program, Sabrina is on pace to graduate a year early with a degree in Social and Behavioral Sciences and a minor in Spanish. She is originally from Hallowell and a graduate of Hall-Dale High School.
Audrey Iradukunda ‘22 has always known she wanted to become a nurse. Her younger brother was in and out of the hospital from the time he was born until nearly two years old for extensive medical care. As a young child, she observed the struggle her parents endured bringing her baby brother to and from the hospital and the mental and physical exhaustion that soon set in. “My mother was so exhausted - we all were.” The nurses caring for her brother extended their care and compassion to the whole family. “I witnessed the nurses being there for my mother, encouraging her and always giving us hope,” said Iradukunda. Inspired by the care her whole family received, Audrey’s goal of becoming a nurse was cemented from a young age.
Audrey moved to the United States from Burundi at the age of 18 - all on her own. She quickly navigated a new culture and new surroundings with the full weight of responsibility on her shoulders. She picked up a job at a local grocery store, secured an apartment, enrolled full-time at Southern Maine Community College and pushed through personal challenges without the support from her family that she was accustomed to having. Not having “my family by my side made me into the responsible and goal-oriented person that I am today,” said Iradukunda. Through self-reliance and determination, she supported herself through the completion of her Associates Degree in Liberal Studies with a Pre-Nursing focus and then set her sights on the University of Southern Maine.
Despite her continued interest in Nursing, she transferred to USM as an undeclared student as acceptance into the program required a few additional prerequisites. Around the same time of her transition, she landed a new role at Woodford Family Services in Portland as a Direct Service Professional (DSP) caring for adults with special needs. As a DSP she helps consumers with their daily activities including cooking, grocery shopping and engagement in social activities while simultaneously supporting their sense of independence. The position aligned with her desire to become a nurse and offered a valuable experience that would enhance her skill set. After a year of prerequisites, a new job, and an enduring passion, Audrey applied for the Nursing Program. However, a competitive pool of applicants left her without a spot in the program. Disheartened, but not deterred, she refused to give up hope.
Competitive entry into nursing briefly led her to think about alternative paths. However, she lacked the same enthusiasm for other majors as she had for nursing as the thought of pivoting away from her life-long goal left a noticeable void. With the mutual support of her academic and Promise Scholarship Program advisors, she pressed on and completed a minor in Holistic & Integrative Health while waiting for her next opportunity to apply. That second opportunity came in February 2020, just prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The outbreak, as it did for many, created new, unexpected challenges to both her academics and her job. Already maintaining a delicate balance of full-time course work and a full-time job - the added weight of a pandemic would be a challenge like no other.
With her application submitted, Audrey’s focus quickly turned to her spring classes. The COVID-19 pandemic forced all USM classes to shift online after spring break. “It’s been hard as it’s not the same as face-to-face” she described. Despite her own educational challenges, she became increasingly concerned about her client’s limited ability to go out in the community and she feared the people she cared for would feel isolated and have difficulty with the disruption to their routines. Supporting adults with special needs “it is important to keep them as engaged as possible during this time of social isolation. We’ve been playing more board games, listening to music and I have even been helping them access online tutorials on how to play the guitar and piano,” she shared. As she adjusted to the unfolding reality around her and invested her energy in those she cares for - she patiently and eagerly awaited word on her future. Finally, amidst the stress of classes and work she received word,…”congratulations.”
Audrey’s acceptance to the Nursing Program is a celebratory achievement; she will continue with classes in the fall and begin clinical rotations in spring 2021. “Nursing is not just a profession to me, it is a way of connecting with people and making a difference in their lives. Compassion, kindness and a caring heart are important assets for any aspiring nurse and I believe I will bring those to the profession.”
Megan McLaughlin ‘24
“The Promise Scholarship had a large impact on my decision to attend USM,” says Megan. She first learned about the scholarship opportunity while on a campus tour with the TRIO Upward Bound Program. I immediately knew that I wanted to apply for the scholarship as college affordability played a big part in my choice of what school I would pick, she says. A second tour of campus and being selected for the Promise Scholarship cemented her commitment to USM.
Megan will pursue a degree in Social Work. “I was inspired by this career path, because I always knew I wanted to help children.” She’d like to serve as a support for children and be a person that they can depend upon. “I understand the struggles that are faced by children and the support and patience they need.” Her career goal is to work with Child Protective Services or in a school setting.
In addition to being a part of the TRIO Upward Bound at the University of Maine throughout high school, she also participated in the Olympia Snowe Women's Leadership Institute. She is graduate of Piscataquis Community High School in Guilford, ME.
Joshua Mutshaila ‘24
Joshua enters USM this fall with a strong desire to study Political Science and pursue a career as a lawyer. He learned about the Promise Scholarship from the Boys & Girls Club of Southern Maine, where he was an active club member for three years. The Boys & Girls Club had a significant impact on his life and helped him to develop a strong academic work ethic while also teaching him valuable life lessons. “I struggled in math and science for a long time and it shattered my confidence,” he says. However, consistent encouragement and positive energy from the staff at the Boys & Girls Club and his high school teachers transformed his mindset. The encouragement he received motivated him to put in the necessary practice to overcome problems he did not easily understand. “A transformed mindset and a persistent work ethic will allow me to conquer and prevail in college and beyond.”
Earning the Promise Scholarship is a testament that persistent effort can pay off. “This scholarship will be a huge help to me and my family both financially and academically. It’s a blessing.”
Joshua is a graduate of Casco Bay High School in Portland.
Ellie Vance ‘24
Inspired by her grandmother, Ellie enters USM with a strong desire to pursue Nursing. Her grandmother worked as a nurse for many years and often shared stories of how she cared for patients and the impact she had on their lives. “I always imagined myself doing that one day too,” she says. Bearing witness to her grandmother’s health complications and eventual passing solidified her pursuit of a career in the medical field. “I learned that life is short and there is no reason why we shouldn’t be doing everything we want in our life and achieving every single goal we have for ourselves.” Her goal is to become a Neonatal ICU or Labor and Delivery Nurse. “I know that I am able to do it and become everything I want to be.”
Ellie’s decision to attend USM stems from her interest in Nursing and the inclusive environment she saw here. In light of recent national events, she says she has become more aware of BIPOC and LGBTQ+ issues and strives to be “an activist for change.” “I realize that I am my own person and that my voice matters in these situations. I am so passionate about being involved in my community and being the spark of change it needs.”
Ellie is a graduate of Bonny Eagle High School and participated in the JMG Program.
Scholarships and a Strong Support System Gave Mo the Start He Needed
For Mohamed "Mo" Awale '17, the dream began to take shape at the age of four, when he and his mother made the journey to America from their refugee camp in Nairobi, Kenya. His family had always placed a high priority on education and Mo knew he would someday go to college — he just didn't know how. The answer came with help from the Boys and Girls Club and USM.
Mo grew up in Portland, where he and his family settled in with help from the extended Somali refugee community. It wasn’t always easy. He experienced bullying at school, but eventually found a good fit at Casco Bay High School.
Expanding His Horizons
As a teen, he became a regular at the Portland Clubhouse, attracted by the free gym and the community there. He also participated in the Club's leadership and service programs. When Mo won Youth of the Year at the Portland Clubhouse, doors began to open.
When it came time to apply to colleges, Mo’s mentors at the Portland Clubhouse connected him with a valuable scholarship opportunity at the University of Southern Maine. He had other offers, but USM promised the chance to earn his degree and begin his career without a heavy debt burden. In 2017, Mo Awale graduated with a bachelor’s degree in political science and a minor in economics. Today, he is starting his career with a job in the insurance industry – the next step toward realizing his dream.
"As a first-generation immigrant, I hope to build a strong foundation for myself and my family. Graduating from USM debt-free means a lot. But also important are the strong community connections I've made through the Boys and Girls Clubs. I know I'm going to be okay," said Mo.
Mo felt — and still feels — incredibly supported by the network of people he met through the Boys and Girls Clubs. “It is a great resource to have a network of professionals who can help you. There’s always someone who reaches out.”
Scholarships Enabled Brianna to Graduate and Give Back
Brianna DiDonato-Duran '08, '13 grew up surrounded by positive role models at the Boys and Girls Clubs of Southern Maine’s Portland Clubhouse. Giving back is in her DNA.
"By the time I hit middle school, I was going every day after school. I participated in everything — the computer room, the teen room, in community service clubs. I worked in the locker room, taught swimming, and got trained as a lifeguard. I learned that helping kids felt best and I wanted to do it for the rest of my life," said Brianna.
The Club kept Brianna motivated and on track. She gained leadership skills as president of the Keystone service club and had eye-opening experiences traveling to other Clubs in Maine. Twice she earned recognition as Portland Youth of the Year. Then, with the encouragement of Club staff, Brianna applied for and won a four-year scholarship to USM. "It was perfect: I could live at home, continue to volunteer at the Club, earn my degree in education, and graduate debt free." It was an opportunity she couldn't afford to pass up.
A Passion For Teaching
Brianna was determined to begin her teaching career as quickly as she could. She completed her bachelor's in three years and then, with scholarship money still available, immediately went back for her master's. She knew from her extensive practicum experience at USM that her heart lay in special education. So in 2013, not yet 21 years of age, Brianna graduated with her M.S.Ed. and began looking for the right challenge.
Today, with several years of experience under her belt, Brianna is teaching special education in the Gorham public schools and pursuing a PhD. She’s grateful that she has a career she's passionate about without the burden of a huge debt load like so many of her friends.
"For those of us who come from a low-income family, these scholarships mean so much. It's amazing how quickly school expenses add up. Without the scholarship, I might never have gone on for my master's. I might never have been teaching in a special ed classroom in Maine," said Brianna.