College readiness programs are so beneficial for many students, and these programs can be geared to tackle certain issues. Some programs focus on first-generation college students, or those who come from low-income families, or even just high school students who need an extra support person who is trained in the college application process. 

For Make It Happen (MIH), a college preparation program, their goal is to support students who are multicultural, multilingual, or learning English in the Portland high schools. The program is now 15 years old, and has been adopted by many Portland schools. They have volunteers to help students with their academics while also providing opportunities to help give back to the community and set them up for future success. Make It Happen also works with middle school students, preparing them for the transition to high school, just as they help the high school students transition to college. 

Site coordinators look at their students’ grades to see where they may need extra support, and match that student with a volunteer who can help them best. They also connect students with internships and volunteer opportunities in the community to build their resumes. If a student is interested in pursuing a college education, coordinators and volunteers help them make sense of the application process and how to get financial aid. Their goal is to build students’ applications to be competitive, giving them a better chance at achieving their goals. MIH asks their volunteers to donate 1-2 hours of their time a week to connect with their mentees. Jennifer Shyka, site coordinator for King Middle School, said, “Site coordinators and volunteers can bridge a gap with many multilingual students whose families are relatively new to the U.S. and may not have the English language skills to navigate the U.S. educational system.”

Shyka shared that the middle school students get involved in projects that look a little different than at the high school level. This year, there have been eighth grade MIH students that volunteer in the sixth grade classrooms to act as role models and offer their support to the younger students. Students have also formed a cooking class to collect recipes for a community meal. Shyka also says that the students are putting together a video interviewing fellow students that will later be shared with the entire school. Make It Happen allows middle schoolers to engage in leadership roles in their school community while also being connected to outside organizations to further their opportunities.

Make It Happen held an event on February 1st to unite the students from the six participating schools. They gathered in Wishcamper Center on the USM Portland campus to discuss how the program has been a positive experience for everyone. Participating schools include Portland High School, Deering High School, Casco Bay High School, King Middle School, Lincoln Middle School, and Lyman Moore Middle School. Shyka said “All students in Make it Happen are multilingual students with a first language other than English. Many were born in other countries, some born here to parents who immigrated here.” There are students from Angola, Somali, Sudan, Iraq, Guatemala, and many other countries.

The founder, Grace Valenzuela, spoke about her inspiration for this program. She moved to Maine from the Philippines and got her PhD in Public Policy with a concentration in educational leadership and policy here at USM. She began working for Portland Public Schools in the 1980’s and eventually moved up to the position of the director of the Multilingual and Multicultural Center. Valenzuela began Make It Happen in 2007, when she was working in the English Language Learning department. She noticed students were too busy struggling to learn English to be able to keep up with their peers, so she decided to start the program to give them the support they needed.

 In 2021, Valenzuela was selected by the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine to receive the Gerda Haas Award for Excellence in Human Rights Education and Leadership for her efforts to help each student have access to the education they deserve. Currently, she is the executive director of Communications and Community Partnerships for Portland Public Schools’ Language Access Team.

Pairs of students and their academic coaches shared stories of the relationships they built through the program. Students reflected on the ways their academic coach was able to help them in their studies, while the coaches shared the ways they were able to grow and learn from their mentees as well. High school seniors who spoke shared their plans for after graduation, while two seventh grade students from Lyman Moore Middle School shared their big plan for a cookbook they wish to create to give back to their community. 

Site coordinators from the participating schools had the opportunity to share how the program has also shaped them and their lives. Timothy Cronin, the coordinator of Portland High School told stories of how he watched students in the program that have already graduated get their degrees and grow to do amazing things for the Portland community. Mukli Hagi was in the Make It Happen program when she was in high school, and the program had such an impact on her life that after graduating college, she ended up working as a coordinator for the program. She was driven by the passion to help give future students the same opportunities that she was able to have.

The high school programs are funded through the state, while the middle school programs rely on grants. The program is hoping to get more funding through the Portland Public School Committee. Becoming an academic coach can be an amazing opportunity for college students to give back to their community as well. For these students, connecting with a college student and giving them the opportunity to ask questions about college has been a very inspirational experience for them. To get involved, you can visit the Make It Happen website at You can also directly contact Naila Wissa by email at [email protected]. MIH also works with USM volunteers through the America Reads program, which USM has a page for on the USM website at


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