Salvadore “Sam” Portera, Jr., a graduate of the TRIO Upward Bound (UB) program at the University of Maine at Presque Isle—as well as Limestone Community School and the University of Maine at Presque Isle—was honored as a “Rising Star” at the Maine Educational Opportunity Association’s (MEEOA) annual awards ceremony recently.
The award was created in 2013 to identify emerging professionals who are former participants of Maine’s educational opportunity programs. This award allows Maine to recognize Rising Stars who have earned degrees, are at the beginning of their careers, and are starting to make impacts in their careers and communities. The Rising Star Award honors emerging leaders who strive toward the highest levels of personal and professional accomplishment, who excel in their chosen fields, devote time and energy to their communities in meaningful ways, and serve as role models for other economically disadvantaged, first-generation college-bound students and students with disabilities.
Portera was nominated by UMPI’s TRIO College Access Services Director Darylen Cote. In her nomination, Cote stated that glimmers of Portera’s career as a political organizer showed as early as his sophomore year in high school when school visits with his UB Advisor often turned to political discussions. Later, Upward Bound staff arranged an internship for Portera in Congressman Mike Michaud’s Presque Isle office, and the trajectory of his career was established.
When Portera became homeless in his senior year in high school, the UB staff and the UMPI Admissions Director arranged for him to be admitted early to UMPI, to live in the residence hall, and to earn both high school and college credits. Consequently, when he graduated from Limestone Community School as the valedictorian of his class, he also started what would have been his freshman year at UMPI as a sophomore. Right away, he started to “pay it forward” by becoming a tutor with other college students for UMPI’s TRIO Student Support Services program.
His interest in politics continued to grow. While in college, Portera became even more politically active as the President of the UMPI College Democrats, the Chair of the Presque Isle Democratic Party, and the Volunteer Coordinator for the Aroostook County Democratic Campaign Office. It was just the beginning of his political activism through both volunteer work, paid internships for such organizations as Equality Maine, and currently through his job as a Political Organizer at the Maine People’s Alliance.
Portera credits TRIO Upward Bound for helping him along the way: “UB played a significant role in who I am, not just what I do,” Portera said. “I moved around as a child, but always to places that were less than tolerant of people who were different. As incredible as it sounds, UB’s summer program was the first place I ever went as a student where a person would get in trouble for using derogatory terms about LGBT people. For high schoolers, the culture of ‘us vs. them’ is universally powerful. UB was able to create a unique environment to challenge us to feel safe and equal among our peers, regardless of our differences.”
Last spring, when UMPI’s two applications to renew Upward Bound funding were rejected by the U.S. Department of Education due to minor technical line-spacing errors, Portera jumped right in with his special skill set to help. He quickly activated an alumni and supporter network through a form letter on social media. He then proceeded to organize a phone bank and a canvassing effort that, in the end, generated over 2,000 letters protesting the rejection and supporting UMPI’s UB program to U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. He then organized a press conference outside the Presque Isle post office after which over half of those letters were mailed.
That effort garnered statewide and then national media attention. Along with Maine’s entire Congressional delegation and their staffers, and Senators and Congressional Representatives from other states that had been affected by minor technical errors in their otherwise acceptable applications, Portera was instrumental in moving the conversation to a different level that was eventually successful in getting UMPI’s applications read and funded. All along, Portera was a role model for others in sharing his own story and crediting TRIO Upward Bound for his own successes. He has continued to pay it forward by providing training in political advocacy to the Upward Bound Student Leadership Council.
Portera has also been a leader in other areas that affect Maine communities. His list of political campaigns is extensive and growing. He has successfully worked on issues such as access to healthcare, fair wages, marriage equality, reproductive rights, and much more. For all these reasons, Portera was awarded the MEEOA Rising Star recognition.
At the conference, it was also announced that Portera has been selected for an additional recognition. He will be Maine’s delegate to the national Council for Opportunity in Education’s “Policy Seminar,” which involves advocating for TRIO programs with Congress by sharing his story. He will travel to Washington, D.C. in March, and, with other TRIO alumni from throughout the country, will visit Congressional offices to share the impact of the TRIO programs. All TRIO programs are completely federally funded, and Portera’s testimony will be central to continued funding through the Higher Education Authorization Act.