First lady Jill Biden gets a laugh from first-year Southern Maine Community College student Samantha Bock (right) and Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona while touring the South Portland campus on Wednesday. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — First lady Jill Biden arrived just after 11 a.m. Wednesday to tour Southern Maine Community College.

Biden’s first stop was to the school’s automotive technology department. The garage was lined with cars on lifts adorned with license plates that read “Investing in America, Investing in Maine.” As Biden entered, she was accompanied by U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona.

Biden’s visit marked a culmination of work the Maine Community College System has embarked on for nearly two decades, said the system’s president, David Daigler. The visit highlights the importance and success of Maine’s public community college system during a time in which enrollments at community colleges across the country are declining.

Community college enrollment has dropped 37 percent across the county since 2010, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. That decline translates to a loss of about 2.6 million students.

But in Maine, the community college system has seen an influx of students, especially in recent semesters following the rollout of Gov. Janet Mills’ free community college program. In 2022, Mills proposed and the Legislature passed the program, which pays the tuition and fees for full-time community college students who graduated from high school or passed an equivalency exam from 2020 through 2023.

In its first year, the system has seen its enrollment increase a record 12 percent. Mills has proposed continuing the program for students from the high school graduating classes of 2024 and 2025.

The community college system in Maine was not always as multifaceted as it is today.

Its start dates back seven decades ago, when the Maine Vocational Technical Institute was created. In 2003, the community college system was formally created, refocusing its mission from just career readiness to getting more students ready to move on to a four-year institution.

First lady Jill Biden hugs Southern Maine Community College automotive technology student Arielle D’Haiti while touring the South Portland campus on Wednesday, April 5, 2023. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

“We never really lost our roots in technical and occupational education, but we did expand our base to be able to include those necessary transfer elements to really help support enrollments in the four-year institutions and specifically the University [of Maine] System,” Daigler said.

Biden’s first stop at SMCC was the school’s automotive department. As Biden walked in, she greeted the gathered students and faculty.

“Hi, I’m Jill Biden,” she said to each of the students. “I teach at a community college.”

She’s the first first lady to leave the White House for a full-time job — teaching English at Northern Virginia Community College.

Arielle D’Hati, a student in the automotive program, hugged Biden and then showed her the inside of a Chevy Volt and how a computer connected to the car can help inform auto mechanics of the future.

Southern Maine Community College automotive technology student Arielle D’Haiti talks with first lady Jill Biden on the South Portland campus on Wednesday. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Biden also was given a preview of the school’s special class about how to work on electric vehicles. The program is unique to the college, said Ruth Morrison, chairperson of the automotive department.

Then Biden toured Jewett Hall, which houses the college’s integrated manufacturing programs and tools.

Inside the hall, department chair John Bolduc spoke to Biden about how he and the school leverage relationships with local businesses to find out how SMCC can create or modify programs to meet industry needs.

Daigler said that is what the Maine Community College System is all about.

“We work with the businesses to understand the skills necessary to fill vacancies. Then we work with the businesses to give their existing employees the additional skills that they need in order to compete in today’s economy,” he said. “And then we provide scholarships. So those same people can get back on track, get back in college and finish their college education.”

SMCC President Joe Cassidy emphasized how important Maine’s free community college program has been for the state. He said the program recognizes the importance of young people and their future role in Maine’s economy.

“It is a special time in Maine because we’re investing in our young people and are saying education matters,” Cassidy said.

After the tour Biden was slated to head to Vermont to continue visiting workforce training programs before she returns to her full-time teaching job.

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Sawyer Loftus

Sawyer Loftus is an investigative reporter at the Bangor Daily News. A graduate of the University of Vermont, Sawyer grew up in Vermont where he worked for Vermont Public Radio, The Burlington Free Press...