Promise Scholars Emmanuel Mutshaila, left, and Sabrina Freeman on the University of Southern Maine campus. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)
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When Emmanuel Mutshaila and his family made it to Portland in 2017, they had nowhere to go.

They spent nearly five hours at the Greyhound bus station, not sure which way or even where to head next. They’d spend the next five or so months in a homeless shelter.

Mutshaila and his mother and brother moved to South Africa to escape what Mutshaila described as a “warlike climate” in the Democratic Republic of Congo. They spent the next dozen years in South Africa, where Mutshaila’s father had been preparing for their arrival for three years.

Eventually, the peace they found there came to an end.

Emmanuel Mutshaila said Promise Scholarship donors don’t ask about his grades; they want to know what he thinks he can do for the community. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

“It was Africans fighting Africans,” Mutshaila said. “We had left to find a life of peace.”

The family emigrated to the United States, arriving in New York and then immediately coming to Portland, where Mutshaila’s mother had heard they could make a life.

But that life wasn’t easy to make.

After a night in a hotel, they made it to their first shelter, where the family slept on the floor in an empty room. They eventually made it to another shelter that had slightly better accommodations.

“I began my senior year of high school at Casco Bay High School while living in a shelter,” Mutshaila said.

Eventually, they found stability and their own house. Mutshaila, 21, will also be setting another milestone: He will soon become the first in his family to graduate from college.

He is one of a handful of students at the University of Southern Maine whose background qualified him for a relatively new program called Promise Scholars.

The program seeks students who show what Mutshaila described as a commitment to becoming a better person. Rather than focusing on high school grades, it seeks students who otherwise couldn’t afford to go to college, and it covers their tuition costs and fees. It also focuses specifically on first-generation college students.

Creating a safety net

Daniel Barton, the program coordinator for Promise Scholars, said this is the program’s third year. Eventually, it will provide 100 percent tuition and fee coverage to 100 students at any given time.

Barton, a USM graduate, said Promise Scholars is more than just a regular scholarship or grant.

“It will help them, once they come through those doors, by offering them a full circle of support and networking, and will connect them with peers,” he said.

The program is specifically designed to help low-income Maine residents who will be the first in their families to attend college. But Barton said it’s important that this program be more than just waiving tuition because there are so many added challenges facing the first person in a family to go to college.

He said it’s not uncommon for a first-generation student to get derailed by circumstances beyond their control. A family member might get sick or laid off, or another emergency requires the student to take on a bigger financial role in their family by getting a job.

“When that happens, it derails their focus and motivation for continuing a degree,” he said.

The Promise Scholar program, Barton said, aims to provide those first-generation students with a safety net that keeps them motivated and finishing their degrees. Whereas a grant might be a one-time, $1,000 gift to a student, he said the Promise Scholars program is a four-year commitment to ensuring a student gets a degree and comes out free of debt.

“Many scholarships just provide financial aid, and you have to get support services elsewhere,” he said. “This marries the financial aid with the support.”

Each year, 25 students are admitted into the program as a cohort, so that at any given time starting in the fourth year there will be 100 Promise Scholars at USM. In addition to being lower-income and first-generation, applicants are recommended to the university by 30 organizations the school works with, including regional Boys and Girls Clubs, YMCAs, and others.

These groups identify students who meet the academic and financial need criteria, Barton said, and have shown a commitment to their communities and a desire to be good citizens.

“The hardest part of my job is reading all those applications and deciding which 25 are the most in need,” he said.

The benefit of being a cohort, Barton said, is it provides an additional sense of community. Additionally, students already in the program serve as mentors for younger students just coming in.

Incoming Promise Scholars go through what is called an immersion week, he said, which brings them to campus a week early for community service and to engage with the USM community. Incoming students are also matched with older students in the program who offer support and hold the new students accountable.

USM President Glenn Cummings: “We take great pride that our students leave with as little debt as possible.”

USM President Glenn Cummings said he and the university are proud of the program. He said the majority of the students at USM require some form of financial aid, and more than half are first-generation students.

“We take great pride that our students leave with as little debt as possible,” Cummings said.

He said the Promise Scholars program is also one of the university’s best fundraising achievements. Since it began three years ago, the program has raised almost $9 million through donations.

Last fall an anonymous donor agreed to match up to $1 million. Additionally, on a day of giving, the school set a goal of donations from 100 alumni and ended up with nearly 120 people donating.

Cummings said there have been 525 donors to Promise Scholars, a third of whom are current or former faculty and staff.

“It’s a wonderful accomplishment, but it doesn’t surprise me, because it’s such a good investment,” Barton said. “It makes a world of difference to all these students’ lives.”

Mutshaila said the Promise Scholars program is the most important financial aid package he could have received because it places the focus on the individual becoming a better person.

“I have met with all donors who have been involved,” he said. “They have spoken to me about ‘what do you think you can do for this community?’ They have never asked me ‘what is your GPA?’”

‘Truly a blessing’

Mutshaila said he also understands he has a huge opportunity.

“It truly is a blessing,” he said. “We came here with nothing. We had very little, and within a year of our arrival, a lot of people helped me and pushed me, and for me, it is a great honor looking towards graduation next year.”

Sabrina Freeman was an emancipated teenager before a summer camp job led her to the Promise Scholars program at USM. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

Mutshaila is a mechanical engineering student and wants to continue his education to learn electrical engineering, before attending graduate school to earn a master’s degree in project management.

Another Promise Scholar, Sabrina Freeman, said her decision to attend USM came as a result of her work at The Summer Camp, a nonprofit residential camp in Knox County for inner-city and rural girls from low-income and foster homes. The camp is one of several programs around the state that recommends students to the Promise Scholars program.

Freeman, 21, is finishing up her final semester at USM. She hasn’t lived with her biological parents since she was 13, and was legally emancipated at 17 after she went to work at the camp, which eventually nominated her for the Promise Scholars program.

“I really wanted to leave Maine, but this camp said it was a good opportunity,” Freeman, who grew up in Hallowell, said. “The decision to work at the summer camp was one that changed my life.”

Since coming to USM, Freeman has become a mentor to three younger students.

“A lot are first-year students with difficult backgrounds, that might not have someone at home to rely on,” she said. “So it’s checking in to see how you’re doing, or seeing who your financial adviser is. It’s giving that support they might not have.”

A social behavioral science major, Freeman said she isn’t sure what she wants to do after she graduates.

“I just know I want to make a difference,” she said.

The deadline for the next round of Promise Scholarships at the University of Southern Maine is March 15. For information go to https://bit.ly/36tHmtr.