Officials from the University of Maine at Presque Isle and area tribal elders gathered at the Houlton Higher Education Center on March 17 for the dedication of the Houlton Native Education Center, a new student center designed specifically for Native American students in the southern Aroostook County area.
"We are so pleased to be joining with tribal elders throughout the region in dedicating the Houlton Native Education Center and creating a comfortable space for our Native American students as they take their university classes," President Don Zillman said. "This center will help our students continue their educational success and allow us to continue the good work that is being done through our Project Compass efforts."
Dedication activities began outside the Houlton Center at 9 a.m. with Ms. Danya Boyce of the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians and Imelda Perley of Tobique First Nation (Maliseet) overseeing Native cultural ceremonies that included a cleansing/purification of the building, ceremonial prayers and a blessing of the site. President Zillman led a dedication of the center and, afterwards, event participants enjoyed the beginning of a day-long open house of the facility, complete with refreshments and tours. Other tribal officials, including a representative from the Aroostook Band of Micmacs, also took part in the event.
The Native Education Center in Houlton and a similar center located on the University of Maine at Presque Isle campus, have been established to better serve Native American students and provide them with strong support as they complete their college educations. The centers - which provide everything from tutoring services to assistance in filling out paperwork to establishing positive connections on campus - are one component of a major grant project that has been underway at UMPI since last year.
In January 2009, the University received a major grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation to develop and improve culturally responsive strategies for its Native American students. The award made the University eligible to receive up to $750,000 over four years to put toward this effort. The University was one of four universities in New England chosen to participate in Project Compass, the Nellie Mae Education Foundation's multi-year initiative aimed at increasing the number of underrepresented populations graduating with four-year degrees. Project Compass is administered by the foundation's intermediary, the New England Resource Center for Higher Education.
Since the grant award, campus officials involved with Project Compass have been able to accomplish some important tasks, including the creation of a retention team for the program that includes three positions - a Director, a Coordinator of Retention Activities, and an administrative assistant. Throughout this process, the University has been working closely with the Aroostook Band of Micmacs and the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians.
"This is an initial step in recognizing our Native students who comprise our largest university minority group," Eddy Ruiz, Project Compass Director of Student Success and Innovative Education for both the Presque Isle and Houlton locations, said. "The Native Education Center provides a cultural space and the services needed to empower Native students as we work diligently to construct an inclusive environment."