PORTLAND, Maine — A group of 34 medical students with dreams of working in rural communities celebrated the next step in their careers Saturday at the University of Southern Maine.

The Maine Track Program was created three years ago through a partnership between Tufts University School of Medicine and Maine Medical Center in Portland. The program places emphasis on rural and small-town medicine, hoping to court students into opening or joining practices in rural areas, especially Maine.

Caleb Swanberg, a 26-year-old Caribou native, said he hopes to return to his hometown to practice medicine after completing a 3-year residency in Utah. Students like Caleb spend years 3 and 4 of their undergraduate medical education at Maine Med before going on to residencies.

“This program really allowed me to pursue my interest in getting into rural primary care,” he said before the start of Saturday’s celebration.

In his first two years of medical school, he worked with a Madison-based doctor, living on the doctor’s farm, working with his practice during the days and helping out around the farm at night. Here, Swanberg said he learned first-hand the “challenges and joys of practicing rural medicine.”

The program also provides an up to $25,000 annual scholarship for up to 20 students, helping to offset some of the high costs of attaining a medical degree.

The students will graduate from Tufts in the coming weeks, but Saturday’s event was meant to recognize their accomplishments in the Maine Track Program.

Maine has struggled to attract physicians. The state ranks next-to-last in the country in terms of students entering medical school programs, putting Maine hospitals and rural medical practices at a disadvantage when trying to attract doctors.

To date, 95 students have completed the program, 24 of whom went on to residency programs based in Maine. Others went to residency programs in West Virginia, Tennessee, New Hampshire and other states. Seventeen are pursuing surgical specialties, and two joined the military.

About 30-40 percent of Maine Medical Center residents decide to stay in Maine when they graduate, and officials hope that retention rate will increase to as much as 75 percent as the program continues.

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins spoke at Saturday’s celebration. In her address, she mentioned the many challenges facing today’s rural doctors — higher patient rates of smoking, diabetes, poverty and substance abuse, for example. In Maine, an aging population of baby boomers will contribute to an already growing need for doctors in what is already the oldest state in the nation.

“I cite these issues fully confident that they will not discourage you in the least from rural medicine,” she added. “Consider this, instead, a long compliment of the highest degree: You know the challenges and are eager, trained and ready to take them on.”

Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.