Mercedes Pour, the Mitchell Institute’s 2023 Higher Education Professional of the Year
PORTLAND, Maine — The Mitchell Institute, a Maine-based college scholarship foundation created by Senator George J. Mitchell to improve college access and outcomes for students from every community in Maine, recently named Mercedes Pour as the organization’s 2023 Higher Education Professional of the Year. Pour is the Director of College Access and Secondary Partnerships within the Maine Community College System.
The award, which was presented at Educate Maine’s 2023 Education Symposium on Friday, Dec. 8, recognizes higher education professionals whose extraordinary service to students supports the Mitchell Institute’s mission of helping young people from Maine to pursue, afford, and achieve a college education.
“These are the advisors, coaches, career counselors and members of admission, financial-aid and student-life staff who are boots on the ground and working longer than normal days to lift up and support Maine students,” said Mitchell Institute President and CEO Jared Cash. “Mercedes’ work to improve Maine students’ access to higher education, their success in college, and their rates of degree attainment transforms lives and strengthens our communities statewide.”
Since 2014, Pour has provided system-wide leadership and strategy for all Early College initiatives at Maine’s seven community colleges. During her leadership and with intentional policy shifts that prioritized equity of access, the number of Maine high school students earning college credit through Early College programs has grown to a record fall-semester enrollment of over 5,000 students. Nationally, these dual and concurrent enrollment programs are widely credited with encouraging high school students to enroll in college, achieve higher grades, save on educational expenses, and earn a college degree. Pour cites her close partnership with the University of Maine System’s Early College team as crucial in this effort. “Since we are both committed to equity, we have been able to make parallel policy decisions to increase access that have gained national attention for Maine’s early college programs,” she said.
To ensure that the benefits of early college were accessible to students who might gain the most, Pour launched the Spring Ahead program in partnership with Southern Maine Community College. Available to high school seniors who have completed most or all graduation requirements but may be uncertain of their post-secondary path, Spring Ahead provides students with the opportunity to spend their final spring semester on a community college campus enrolled in a full-time schedule. Spring Ahead students concurrently finish high school and start college tuition-free, with support from a dedicated college coach and peer cohort, as well as a book allowance and meal plan. Since the first SMCC cohort was initiated in 2019, the program has grown to over 70 students from 14 area high schools. To date, 85% of Spring Ahead participants continue on to pursue higher education degrees after graduating from high school.
Pour, who began her professional career as a teacher at private boarding schools in New England, says that when she transitioned to community colleges, “I found a whole other space in education. The world got much bigger for me.”
For the first time, her students, “were making real-world choices between pursuing a degree and putting food on their tables,” she said. “There are so many moments in my community college career when I think back and realize I was coaching a student through an actual crossroad. They weren’t deciding on attending college A or college B. It was to go to college or not. So many of them carried burdens and responsibilities that I didn’t even realize existed until I was out of college myself.”
She says the challenges many community college students face sparked her interest in creating systems to promote equity in access to higher education and to help all students succeed.
“When you work in community colleges, it feels like your best efforts matter more and that makes you want to work that much harder for every student,” she said. “That’s why I want to create structures to wrap around and support as many students as possible.”
Among the initiatives Pour is helping to lead in partnership with the Maine Department of Education is Math Pathways for Maine high school and college students. Part of the Launch Years Initiative, a national educational endeavor guided by the research and expertise of the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas–Austin, Math Pathways recognizes that math is one of the key barriers to student engagement with higher education and an obstacle to degree completion. The goal of the program is to better support student learning and success by ensuring that students are enrolled in math courses that align with their academic and career pathways.
“The traditional prescribed progression of college mathematics courses that lead up to calculus is, in many ways, a relic of the 1950s,” Pour said. “This precalculus path and success in that path has had a tremendous weight in the culture of higher education. You were either good at it or not, which translated into you’re either college material or you’re not.”
With Math Pathways, Pour said the emphasis is on recognizing that students’ career goals can be matched with more meaningful mathematics course options, such as statistics and quantitative reasoning.
“The idea is to offer students the real opportunity to succeed in and fall in love with math and to pursue courses that allow them to see the relevance to their own lives and career interests,” she said.
In support of her work to increase access to and engagement with higher education, Pour serves as a state agency representative on the National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships’ board of directors, a coach for the Maine Department of Education’s Rethinking Remote Education Ventures (RREV) Project, and an adjunct faculty member for the Community College of Vermont.
Pour’s selection as the Mitchell Institute’s Higher Education Professional of the Year follows a call for nominations from student-facing personnel at colleges and universities statewide that opened in July of 2023. “Mercedes’ vision and deep concern about and commitment to equity are among her many gifts as a leader,” wrote one nominator. “She is committed to providing that first, early exposure to college to as many Maine students as possible, especially underrepresented populations, [thereby] raising aspirations and giving them a chance to see a different future.”
While Pour believes in the life-changing potential of higher education, she recognizes that “there are many other wonderful paths” for Maine students.
“I do not believe that every student has to go to college, but I do believe every student should have the opportunity to pursue college,” she said. “I am committed to this work because I have seen, and I know, that college options and access are still very much determined more by socio-economics than by aspirations and abilities. Even though I now work at the system- and state level, I try to approach issues of access and equity from a student-centered framework that is grounded in my years as a classroom teacher. At the end of the day, my job is always to support and promote the incredible work that is done every day by the staff and faculty at our colleges. They are doing this work for Maine students. My job is to make sure more Maine students get to them.”
Pour earned her bachelor’s at the College of William and Mary, her Master of Arts in education in education policy at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and her Ed.D. with a concentration in instructional technology at the University of West Georgia. She and her wife, Malik, are proud parents to two children, both of whom enjoy their public schools.