Calm waters carried me to Frenchboro at the end of October. A Nor’easter had just blown through, leaving behind trees bereft of leaves, and a pent up demand among island fishermen to get out and haul through their gear.
I made a point of spending some time catching up with Cody on the way to the island. I met Cody seven years earlier while sitting in the guest chair for a morning discussion with the students at the Frenchboro school. The students had me sign their surprisingly enormous guest book and record my birthday. Almost every year since then I’ve received a birthday card, signed by each of the kids at the Frenchboro school in colorful Crayola and ink. It’s a reminder of what matters.
Today, Cody is a senior in high school on the mainland, his family having relocated off-island once he outgrew the one-room schoolhouse that provides a kindergarten through eighth grade education. Four years later, he is about to graduate. His mom is thrilled. Cody smiles while telling his story, a smile filled with personal pride.
It is college application time, so I can’t help but ask the obvious question: what are you going to do next? Fish or go to college?
His answer surprised me: “Both.”
I hadn’t heard this before. Many fishermen focus on building their fishing business rather than going to college, opting for an education at sea. The Island Institute college scholarship program connects me more directly with fishermen who choose to go to college, many of whom fish during the summer to put money aside for school.
I asked Cody to say more about his plans.
He wants to come home. He loves the island and has missed it while away for high school. He spends summers on the island and returns on fall weekends to haul through his 300 traps aboard F/V Blue Lobster, named for having caught a rare blue lobster on his first day out, when the boat was new to him.
Cody is comfortable with distance learning technologies. His island school adopted them out of necessity more than a decade ago. He also is comfortable moving between the island and mainland, again, a skill born of necessity. He doesn’t see why he can’t fish when the fishing’s good and take courses online in the evenings.
When winter hits, he would like to attend courses on the mainland.
Of course, it’s not just about getting an education; time ashore is about making new friends and finding a partner that will move to the island some day to start a family.
In contrast to Cody’s optimism, comes news that the University of Southern Maine is being gutted, the latest victim of system wide budget cuts.
The Island Institute has provided scholarships to more than 30 island students to attend USM. Many of these students are similar to Cody—young people who are already contributing to the economy, from Maine, and they want to stay here. USM appeals to them because it provides a practical education and it is in Portland—a cool small city where young people can meet lots of other young people.
University leaders need to invest in the future that our students want. They can do so by increasing investments in state-of-the-art distance learning methods and technology for students of all ages, and by creating flexibility so students who want to continue working in rural communities can take courses that match the seasonality of their jobs.
These students face an increasingly unpredictable ocean that will require new techniques in business management, an understanding of the science of a changing ocean environment, access to emerging technologies and the ability to diversify their livelihoods. Students like Cody seek a practical education, and when they leave the island for school they would like to attend classes on an inspiring campus filled with top faculty, in a thriving small city.
At the moment, we seem to be heading in the wrong direction. To my way of thinking, Maine’s colleges and universities need to invest heavily in Cody’s ambitions and those like him if we are going to retain and attract the people we need to build a thriving state.
Rob Snyder is president of the Island Institute, publisher of The Working Waterfront. Follow Rob on Twitter: ProOutsider