CASTINE — The recent installation of the “topping-off” beam on Maine Maritime Academy’s new American Bureau of Shipping Center for Engineering, Science and Research signals not just progress on a much-needed facility, but MMA’s essential place in the field of maritime education.

“Right now, we have 200-plus students on our training ship, making its way through the Mediterranean, headed to Iceland,” said MMA president William Brennan, by way of example. “I’d be willing to bet those students have seen more of the world than the average Maine citizen. It’s a sophisticated education, a sophisticated exposure to global issues. They will head off to be officers in the merchant marine or the armed forces. They came here because they see a path forward.”

Located in the small coastal village of Castine, MMA is a public college specializing in experiential, hands-on training in marine-related programs. The waterfront boasts sights such as the T/S State of Maine, where students train for an officer’s license from the U.S. Coast Guard as third mate or third assistant engineer while voyaging to foreign and domestic ports-of-call, and the historic arctic schooner Bowdoin, a National Historic Landmark.

MMA is one of six state maritime academies (others are located in California, Massachusetts, Michigan, Texas and New York), a federal maritime academy in New York, and similar institutions around the world. The academies train students for the merchant marine, the armed forces and intermodal transportation.

Higher education has a long tradition in Castine, going back to a teaching college established in 1867. In the 1930s, Maine leaders proposed establishing an institution devoted to nautical training. The Legislature created MMA in 1941. MMA took over the teaching college’s space in 1942. Since then, enrollment has grown steadily and the program expanded. Today, with about 230 employees, it is the third-largest employer for Hancock County and a big draw for students throughout Maine.

A distinguishing feature is the blend of students who follow a traditional college lifestyle and those who participate in regimental training.

MMA was also the first maritime college to graduate women. And it holds the distinction of having one of the highest professional placement rates of any college in the U.S., with 90-plus percent of graduates landing jobs in their chosen field within 90 days of graduation.

Castine is a lovely village accessed via long roads down a peninsula. The life of the village and academy are entwined, as Brennan can personally attest. His father graduated from MMA’s first class in 1943 and later became commandant; Brennan attended the local school, he met his wife here, and her father was an MMA employee.

“It’s been an institution within this town for a long, long time,” he said. “In fact, many of the people who live here graduated from this school, or work here, or have worked here. It’s a symbiotic relationship: We depend on the town, and folks use our facilities and benefit from many associations with the college.”

The 30,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art ABS (American Bureau of Shipping) center is the first new classroom construction on campus in 30 years; completion is expected in January 2015.

“In that time, our student population has doubled,” serving about 920 students this year, Brennan said. In response to the field’s development, MMA’s engineering program also expanded significantly—well beyond confined classroom and lab space housed in original structures going back to the 1800s.

Brennan attributes climbing enrollment to quality education and excellent career placement.

“Some kids are making six-figure salaries with a bachelor’s degree,” he said. “It’s about the careers and opportunities. That’s how we see ourselves—as a career-oriented, hands-on institution. Our goal is to prepare young men and women to be successful. I think that’s why we’re as attractive as we are.”