Northern Maine Community College students Carter Quist (left) and Austin Winslow carefully measure lumber prior to cutting in the building construction technology lab. Credit: Courtesy of Griffin Goins / NMCC

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Jacqueline Martin is the assistant director of admissions at Northern Maine Community College.

The best thing about Gov. Janet Mills’ free community college proposal is who it would help: Local high school graduates who have been severely impacted by COVID.

I was a middle and high school counselor in a small school district in northern Maine for 10 years before starting work in the admissions office at Northern Maine Community College in January.

What I saw as a counselor over the last two years was different than any other time: These students are some of the most tired, hopeless and confused individuals I’ve worked with.

And it’s not apathy. They’re trying. But everything in their last two years has been disrupted. Nothing happens like it used to. Even their most reliable structures in life – around school – continue to be disrupted on a daily basis. They don’t know if they’ll be learning in school, at home, or if they will even have a teacher on any given day with all the staffing shortages. All this has them wandering through each day, not knowing what is going to actually work out.

This group needs a boost to help them get through the doors of an education institution and help them realize they can do post-secondary work. Many of them are nervous that they’ve experienced so much learning loss that they won’t be academically prepared to tackle college-level work.

I know they can. Maine’s community colleges are fantastic places for these students to turn to as they continue to try to navigate their lives.

Personally, I’m usually leery of “free” initiatives, as free is never actually free. My idealistic brain believes that students should have to put forth some personal financial investment. However, my realistic brain knows that I have seen initiatives make a significant difference in the lives of students in their pursuit of higher education.

Through grant programs with MELMAC and GEAR UP that I’ve administered at a local level, there were many free events, experiences and tools that were provided to students that collectively made a difference in their pursuit of higher education. And doing these things in a public way helped younger students and even staff reframe their thinking around options and planning for higher education.

With an idea like this, which would cover tuition and mandatory fees for the pandemic high school graduation classes of 2020, 2021, 2022 and 2023, the result isn’t just a financial benefit to the student. Initiatives like this can have a lasting impact if they’re capitalized on, in terms of changing culture on a larger scale.

If this passes in the Legislature, we would have the chance to help our high school graduates get back on track and take advantage of all the community colleges have to offer in terms of a quality education in both trades and in the arts and sciences.