First Lady Dr. Jill Biden visits SMCC as part of “Investing in America” tour

South Portland, Maine – First Lady Dr. Jill Biden, alongside U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, visited Southern Maine Community College (SMCC) Wednesday, April 5, as part of the Biden-Harris administration’s “Investing in America” tour to highlight how the current administration’s economic policies are benefiting hard working Americans across the country. Dr-Jill-Biden-visiting-with-SMCC-Maine-students

Other notable figures in attendance at the event were U.S. Representative Chellie Pingree, Maine Commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development Heather Johnson, Portland Mayor Kate Snyder, and Mayor of South Portland Katherine Lewis. Maine Governor Janet Mills was scheduled to appear with Dr. Biden but could not do so after recently testing positive for COVID-19.

Dr. Biden visited SMCC to highlight how career-connected learning and workforce training programs are central to the Biden Education Pathway and to recognize the positive impact of Maine’s Free College Scholarship. Dr. Biden’s tour put the spotlight on the importance of investing in programs that prepare high school and community college students for jobs created by the President’s “Investing in America” agenda.

“We’re extremely honored to have Dr. Biden and Secretary Cardona visit our South Portland Campus,” SMCC President Joe Cassidy said. “We’re proud to showcase SMCC as an epicenter of innovation that provides multiple educational pathways for Mainers from around the State. With workforce needs at an all-time high, SMCC is dedicated to using education to meet those needs head-on. Our talented faculty and staff help students achieve their goals, ultimately filling vital employment needs that benefit the entire State economy. Add in Maine’s investment in the Free College Scholarship, bringing in a whole new generation of students that might not otherwise continue their education, and it’s clear that we’re living our mission to help improve the lives of our students and the communities they live in and love.”

Maine Governor Janet Mills and the Legislature enacted Maine’s Free College program in 2022 to help Maine high school graduates from the Classes of 2020, 2021, 2022 and 2023 attend community colleges essentially for free. In the fall of 2022, the Maine Community College System (MCCS) saw an increase in enrollment of 12%. SMCC was right at that mark, with a 10.5% increase. More than a third of the incoming 2022 class were Free College students. While Governor Mills couldn’t attend, she did send thanks and highlighted the free college program.

“While I am unable to join our visiting dignitaries in person, I am excited to welcome the First Lady and Secretary Cardona to Maine,” Mills said in a statement. “My Administration’s free Community College initiative and other crucial investments from the Biden-Harris Administration are providing important new opportunities for Maine people to get a high-quality education at little or no cost that allows them to take good-paying jobs in rewarding careers – a win for our students, for our employers, and for our economy.”

The tour began at the Johnson Automotive Technology Center (JATC), visiting with Automotive Technology Chair Ruth Morrison and her students. Dr. Biden and Secretary Cardona met with Arielle D’Haiti, who demonstrated how she uses diagnostic tools to analyze EV systems. Dr. Biden asked D’Haiti about encouraging others to enter the auto tech field. “When I meet people, I tell them it’s possible to do what I do at any age. I’m a little older than a typical first-year student,” D’Haiti said. “I love to see other women in trades and it was exciting that Ruth was my teacher because I was nervous about entering the field. It’s been such a great opportunity and I’ve learned so much. “

Dr. Biden and Secretary Cardona then moved over to second-year student Griffin Simmons and SMCC Electrical Vehicle Repair Training graduate Alex LaFortune, who showed the group how to do a power test on a used hybrid battery to ensure the energy flow was efficient. Both Simmons and LaFortune discussed their hopes of using what they have learned in their careers.

“I have an internship lined up as a technician at a dealership in the short term, and long term down the road I’d love to open my own shop and work on EV’s.” Simmons said. “I’m really excited to take this class. It’s the only EV class in Maine.” LaFortune discussed how he enjoyed helping to convert a 1960s Volkswagen Beetle to electric at his job in Biddeford, Maine. “I’m hoping I can get my hands on more interesting projects like that to get more experience,” LaFortune said. “SMCC got me on my feet and helped me make a career out of my passion for cars, especially VWs.” Dr. Biden noted this type of education is a critical component of the Biden-Harris administration’s educational goals. “This is really what the President has put into his budget, for manufacturing, infrastructure, and clean energy,” Dr. Biden said. Secretary Cardona added, “In the education budget there is a request for career-connected learning to do more of this. We really understand how important this (type of training) is for our schools and for economic development.”

Program Chair Morrison was happy to share her students’ stories. “It was incredibly exciting to show off the groundbreaking technology our students are accessing to learn skills that will help them transform the automobile industry,” Morrison said. “I love connecting with my students and supporting them to succeed. Much of this is centralized around aligning them with internships that help them explore areas of the industry they may want to pursue while providing a pipeline to meet the employment needs of our business partners. “

Following their visit to the Automotive Center, Dr. Biden and the team made their way to SMCC’s Precision Machining & Manufacturing Lab to visit program chair John Bolduc and his students.

First up was Thomas Golden, who demonstrated a Computer Numerical Machine (CNC) that can manufacture incredibly intricate machine parts instantly. Golden even let Dr. Biden start the process of making an engraved plaque that the students would later present to Dr. Biden. Golden stressed Maine’s Free College Scholarship was key to his success at SMCC. “I was very grateful to have this opportunity, taking a lot of pressure and weight off my shoulders,” Golden said. “I’ve been able to save money for my future. It’s changed my life.” Secretary Cardona made note of Maine’s Free College success. “Maine is doing this really well and we are trying to do this (type of program) all across the country in the President’s budget,” Cardona said. Program Chair Bolduc spoke about the tremendous growth the program has had over his years at SMCC.

“When I started 20 years ago, it looked like a military installation here. We changed all the technology and managed to get a variety of equipment, so our students can leave here with the skills to go into any type of shop,” Bolduc said. “Industry partners like Pratt & Whitney, General Dynamics, Sig Sauer, Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, and Bath Iron Works helped this program evolve. They’re all members of our advisory board, so everything we’ve done here is with their guidance, including adjusting our curriculum so our students can have that real-world experience needed in today’s workforce.”

Dr. Biden and Secretary Cardona moved to the shop’s five-axis milling machine demonstrated by Patrick Sheehan and Samantha Bock. Sheehan went into detail, showing the process of milling a part and how the pieces are tilted and milled. Bock spoke to the group about her desire to work in a field with different challenges. “I graduated SMCC with a Criminal Justice degree, but I decided it wasn’t what I wanted to do at this point in my life,” Bock said. “I wanted to work with my hands, so I came to this program after meeting John (Bolduc). It’s a lot more hands-on, interactive and fun.”

Dr. Biden wrapped up the visit by expressing her gratitude. “We want to thank you all for your time, enthusiasm, and energy. We truly appreciate it.”

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All photos courtesy Maine Community College System (MCCS)