This past school year saw changes that we will not see the results of until next semester and beyond. To borrow an overused metaphor, this semester was spent planting the seeds for the flowers that will bloom in the future. It was an interesting endeavor to sit back and watch all of these changes occur over the last seven to eight months – watching people within the Student Government and USM community who were driven by school pride and ambition trying to make a difference knowing next year will be a new and unknown chapter in USM’s history. Whether this new chapter will be the start of new adventures, or the last page before the back cover, the outcome will rely solely on you.
It would be delusional of me to believe this past school year was different from the rest. I only gave myself time to think upon that belief because I actually paid attention to what was happening outside of my own life. If I actually did pay attention to what was around me, I’d say the school year we all had to go home because of COVID would be the most extreme version of “different.” Because in 2020 I was a person who took pride in being an outcast, an anomaly, an enigma, as opposed to the person I am now who actually cares about the people here at USM, all I can do is wish I hadn’t waited so long to pay attention. With that in mind, what facts I can write about are the events that transpired from September, 2022 to April, 2023, and why those events had to happen, how these things will affect the future of USM, and about the people who are behind these changes meant to set USM apart from the rest of Maine’s institutions.
When you decide to read this, whether it’s April of 2023 or September of next semester, understand that even if 2022-2023 brought back what college used to be before the pandemic, this past school year was in fact some form of “different” whether you recognized it or not. For the ones who know this already, then allow this to be a recap for you. For the ones who are unaware then let this serve as a time-capsule of a time when USM students were riddled with the contradictions of hope and uncertainty while the students who were graduating were jealous they couldn’t stick around to see what happens.
Let’s start with the Student Activity Fees. Back in March, two changes were made to the structure of how those fees are applied to students. One was changing how much a student is charged. The original structure of $40 for 0-5.99 credits, $60 for 6-11.99 credits, and $80 for 12+ credits was changed to $5 per credit hour. The other change was including all undergraduate students who are on-campus, commuter, online, and everyone in between to be represented by the Student Government Association (SGA) and pay the student activity fee when originally the fee only applied to students who took classes in-person. It’s important to note that these two proposals were created by the SGA and brought to the attention of students by email from Director of Student Engagement & Leadership David Lewis. From there, USM students voted via Google Forms on whether or not they wanted this to happen. Did both referendums pass unanimously? No. Was it a close call? Not really.
The reason for these changes may not be a direct result of the lowering enrollment numbers over the past few years, but instead were designed for students who found it better to live off-campus after COVID. Over 50% of students enrolled at USM commute to their classes or are strictly on-line students; they originally didn’t have to pay the student activity fee which prohibited them from joining clubs. Now that they will be paying the student activity fee, they won’t be turned away. “We are going to be able to support all of our undergraduate students, and not say yes to a few and no to others,” said Lewis. “We are going to be that ultimate resource for all students. That has been the goal for several years for SGA, and it definitely takes time. With the successful referendum, there is a good platform for next year and a new student leadership to truly support all of our undergraduate students.”
When it comes to the decreasing enrollment numbers, this is not an issue that is happening uniquely to USM, it is happening to all four-year universities across Maine–except for the University of Presque Isle, for some reason. There are many speculations as to why this is happening. One of the beliefs is the “2025 Enrollment Cliff,” a domino effect of the Great Recession of late 2007 to 2009 and how there will be fewer college-age students in 2025. The other potential cause for low enrollment in four-year universities is the fact that community colleges in Maine offer free tuition for students. Because of this, students in Maine now see the possibility of attending a community college like Central Maine or Southern Maine Community College for two years to get all of their core classes out of the way and get an Associates Degree, then transfer to a school like USM and spend two years taking classes for their major and only pay the price for two years of school.
This route is becoming the most cost effective way to go to school. With growing inflation and the bill for student loan relief going nowhere in Washington, why would a student pass this up? Even though USM can’t change their financial structure to offer free tuition, what USM can offer is a student-focused experience with a multitude of educational platforms. I attended Central Maine Community College (CMCC) before coming to USM and for me personally, USM is more connected with and compassionate for the students than at CMCC. During my time at CMCC, I found it difficult to connect with faculty and tutoring services, and if it wasn’t for their TRIO program, I most likely would’ve been stuck there for much longer then I wanted to be. Even with CMCC being a much smaller school in terms of enrollment, USM offers far better services for students that need help in school or finding a place for community and connection.
In order for USM to not fall into the same rut that other universities have found themselves in when it comes to enrollment, they have been campaigning with a “Student Focused Every Day” promise for students. USM President Jacqueline Edmondson says that this promise has and will situate USM in a direction that will see the school succeed for years to come. “The University of Southern Maine has a service commitment of Student Focused Every Day and that is evident in the high experiences students can access here,whether it is through our advising offices, our student life experiences, or the many other clubs, sports, and activities they can engage in,” said President Edmondson. “But one of the most important reasons students should choose USM is because of the excellent academic programs we offer and the broad array of majors and minors that will help them realize their goals. We have extraordinary faculty who are committed to student success and faculty who are here because they care about the students we serve.”
Aside from enrollment, during the SGA meetings this past school year a common trend was a lack of funds for the SGA as a whole and the clubs under the SGA and the Board of Student Organizations (BSO). The BSO is the organization that governs the student clubs and groups while also reporting to the SGA when it comes to big decisions with their constitution and money. One instance in particular was back in January when American Sign Language (ASL) Club President Maia DeRosear came to a Student Senate meeting asking for $2,625 from the SGA to help fund their 19th annual Maine Deaf Film Festival. In the past the ASL Club received $5,000 from the SGA for the festival, but with the lack of funds the SGA could give out she asked for $2,625 from the SGA. After long deliberation between the SGA, DeRosear, and the BSO’s Vice President, the SGA could only give the festival $500. I might be terrible at math but $500 is severely less than $2,625, let alone $5,000. The SGA stressed to DeRosear that they are not ignoring the importance of this festival, but that the SGA and BSO have a lack of money to give out at this time and that every club should make room for the adjustments that are coming with this lack of funds.
Nevertheless, the 19th annual Maine Deaf Film Festival took place on April 22nd. Four days after the festival, DeRosear spoke about the adjustments that had to be made. “We had to think a lot more critically about our resources, where we could seek additional funding, and we had to cut certain costs to allocate money to other aspects of the festival. When seeking funding, we found that like USM, every organization is lacking funding. We were able to get lots of food donations, and interpreters will volunteer their time to make MDFF accessible to everyone. We made some really cool connections with the Camden International Film Festival (CIFF) and reached out to the Deaf community, but we only received a few small donations. Many organizations were shocked at USM’s lack of funding for the Maine Deaf Film Festival,” DeRosear said. “In addition to this, later in the semester, when BSO had already minimized the amount of funds allocated to different organizations (including myself, and a few other campus groups), their budget suddenly jumped from $8,000 for the semester to over $15,000. No clubs were told there was additional funding and instead we continued to use our own funding instead of the USM money allocated towards BSO. I don’t know what happened or how they got this money, but I would have liked to see BSO reach out to clubs and see if they were still seeking more funds.”
The cause behind both the lack of funding and the miscommunication on what funding is available is the faceless villain USM is battling. Maybe it’s not a faceless villain, but instead they just don’t want to tell me what’s actually going on. On the surface, USM is thriving with new buildings and celebrity funding from Tony Shaloub, but when I talk to students and go to these senate meetings, on some level they’re fighting to keep USM afloat for the students. While these individuals are overwhelmed by this anxiety, on the surface they’re all cool, calm, and collected about the new direction USM is heading.
Speaking of a new direction, The Free Press and WMPG are moving out from under the SGA’s control to USM’s. This change is a long time coming. A majority of the clubs and organizations under the SGA are student-led. The Free Press and WMPG are not student-led, so it came into question whether or not the SGA needed to have these organizations under their direction and if they could afford to have these organizations under SGA. The Free Press and WMPG have more students than faculty running the program, but at the head of the program, it is faculty members who get genuine paychecks, not stipends or work-study like the students do. Some are not even paid at all. Over the past year it was decided that The Free Press and WMPG will move on from the SGA and now it has finally come to fruition. By the time the fall semester starts, this will already be in effect. In the grand scheme of things, not a lot will change. Internally, a lot has come into question about the future of these two when it comes to the financial side of things with funding, stipends for students, and paychecks for the faculty. According to Student Senators and Lewis, nothing significant will change except for where the money is coming from, which will be USM’s comprehensive fee. Speaking about The Free Press and WMPG, Lewis said “they’re still going to get plenty of funding, they’re going to be able to flourish. Essentially they’re just going to be getting funding from a different location. I think it’s going to be great for everyone. The Student Senate is getting what they envisioned, and WMPG and The Free Press are going to get so much more support when it comes to their finances. That doesn’t mean they’re going to get more money, it’s more on the lines of they are going to get audits that are going to go through the University and not a third-party company that our office hires.”
Yes, even though I’ve been a bit sarcastic about the current state of USM, there are positives in USM’s future. The Center for the Arts building, the McGoldrick Career and Student Success Center, and the Portland Commons are just some of the many things that students here at USM can look forward to having a worthwhile experience from.
In 2018, the multi-million dollar bond was passed to begin construction on these buildings and now in 2023 these plans to bring new life to the Portland campus are finally coming to fruition. The multifaceted McGoldrick Center will feature a dining hall, a commuter student lounge, a new home for services like the Career & Employment Hub and student groups and clubs, a recognition for the land that this campus sits on, and much more. From the bond passed five years ago was a vision to connect USM students to the world outside of school. According to Jeanne Paquette, who is the Chair of the building project for The McGoldrick Center and Portland Commons, “the vision was to have a student center that would incorporate a design that helps employers and organizations meet face-to-face with our students and have programming that will allow our students to learn from employers. The minute they walk in the door they get exposed to what opportunities are here in Maine.” Paquette also explained that “we want to retain our students here and we want to attract more students to USM, and I think this will be the differentiator for us.” The McGoldrick Center will open up new opportunities for USM and specifically for the Portland campus. With a dorm building being built in the form of the Portland Commons, students will be able to live on either the Gorham Campus or Portland Campus. What was originally a commuter friendly campus, Portland will now be able to house more students on campus and open up new possibilities to USM as a whole that hasn’t been seen in quite some time.
The Center for the Arts building is the other new building coming to the Portland campus and will officially open in the Fall of 2025. The building will have a performance hall with adjustable acoustics that will sit over 200 people, a gallery space, rehearsal rooms for music and dance, classrooms dedicated to visual arts, and a terrace for performers to work inside and outside. President and CEO of the USM Foundation Ainsley Wallace spoke on the importance that comes with bringing attention to the art and music that is being created inside of USM. “The campaign that we’re in now is called ‘The Great University Campaign’ and it’s based on the idea of great cities and great regions. Part of what makes them great is that they have really strong universities like USM. Part of the cultural life, the intellectual life, part of what makes the University fun is that there is great stuff going on.” Wallace also said that “as the Portland area is growing, USM is in a position to play a big part in this area being a dynamic hub.” The factor of USM being more connected to the fabric of the Portland community and culture could be a key to growing the University. Not just from the Portland Campus side of but for USM and a whole. “We’ve often kind of waited for USM to step into this part of its identity,” Wallace said. “We’ve always seen it, but we just wondered if USM is going to have the swagger to own that part of its identity and with everything that’s happening on campus right now I think that it’s going to make a big difference in the greater Portland area.” Speaking on how the changes to the Portland campus will impact the surrounding area on Forest Avenue, Wallace said, “The Forest Avenue corridor feels a little industrial, then all of a sudden there’s 600 students who are living there and there’s going to be really different businesses, restaurants, and coffee shops that are popping up here that will become walkable in a different way then it is now. It’s just going to be fun to see!”
For the good or the bad to come, the work that was done from September, 2022, through April, 2023 will be a part of USM’s fabric for many years and future generations. If it wasn’t for the work and dedication of Student Senators, faculty members, organization leaders and presidents, the things you’ll be seeing and experiencing in the Fall of 2023 might not have been possible. Will everything be perfect? No, but what is, anyways? The only thing to make USM perfect is you: the student who is still finding who they are, the teacher who cares more about the well-being of their students than their grade on an exam, the administrator making decisions to accommodate everyone’s needs, and everyone in between. You will be the ones who bring USM into a world that it has never been to before. You will be the one who brings the actual change to USM. You will be the new USM. Good luck.