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When Laurie Lachance, who grew up in a working class family in Dover-Foxcroft, arrived at Bowdoin College, she realized she'd enrolled “for all the wrong reasons. I didn't know anything about the college. I was a first-generation student, from humble roots, and I'd never seen that kind of wealth before. I was a bit overwhelmed.”
Soon, though, she “realized the power of higher education,” and its ability to transform lives. Yet she's never forgotten how difficult it can be for students to get through college and find their way in life — and that was true even before student loan debt became a big issue.
Lachance was much better prepared for her current job, president of Thomas College, even though she'd never taught in a classroom or been an educational administrator before she was hired three years ago. Thomas, located in a rural setting in Waterville, is a growing business and liberal arts school than now has 815 undergraduate and 200 post-graduate students, a record enrollment that's doubled over the last decade.
Lachance has worked in a wide variety of business, government and nonprofit settings, most of which impressed on her the vital importance of education to creating a competitive economy. “We could get everything else right and still not get to prosperity unless every Maine person is working to their full potential,” she says.
Lachance studied economics, and worked for Central Maine Power for a decade, then at the State Planning Office for 11 years as state economist, serving under three governors — John McKernan, Angus King and John Baldacci. In 2004, she moved to the Maine Development Foundation (MDF) and headed a diverse range of programs, including the Maine Downtown Center, Leadership Maine, and biennial legislative tours of Maine businesses.
Again, she found education was the most important link. Lachance served on boards at the Muskie School of Public Service at USM, the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center at the University of Maine, and the UM Board of Visitors — and finally joined the board at Thomas College.
During the presidential search in 2012, Lachance's name came up during a reference check for one of the finalists. The question was why she wasn't applying herself. When the board asked her to consider it, she did. The board, she says, is largely composed of self-made business people. “When they make a decision, they don't waste any time implementing it.”
She came on board at a critical time. The board had planned “meticulously” for a campus expansion, but a $12 million capital campaign was flagging. She decided “Thomas was one of the best-kept secrets in Maine, and that wasn't a good thing.”
Raising its visibility required getting people on campus — and lots of them. She began inviting government leaders, business people, nonprofit directors, and 400 came to visit. The almost universal reaction, she says, was “Wow, I didn't know all this existed.”
Within a year, things turned around. A $5 million challenge grant from the Alfond Foundation was put to use. “A long-time friend of the college pledged $700,000, and that turned into $1 million,” she says. A new “friend of the college” decided Thomas' mission was closely aligned with its own, producing another $1 million gift.
“Suddenly we were really close. We were rolling,” she says. The capital campaign concluded a year early, and the results have included a large new residence hall and a major academic building that nearly doubled the campus footprint.
Lachance also credits another “risky” decision made by trustees before she arrived — to build a new, lighted turf field for field hockey and soccer and offer it, free, to all the schools in the area. It was risky because “there are always costs involved,” but the new field policy showcases the college facilities and creates good will in the community.
The growth at Thomas has involved expanding the traditional business curriculum to include what Lachance calls the “practical liberal arts,” skills that may not at first seem job-related but, in fact, are necessary to successful, long-term employment.
And that has taken her to the next project, coordinating with other four-year schools in the area to create a “Central Maine hub” for higher education. While the mission of Colby College, Waterville's other campus, might seem very different, nearly 15% of its students come from Maine, and many more consider staying here after graduation, she says.
Thomas has a formal coordination agreement with Unity College, which emphasizes environmental and conservation learning, and she speaks frequently with Rich Hopper, the new president at Kennebec Valley Community College in Fairfield, about coordination. She wants to create a “destination” ambience for higher education in the region. “The truth is that we are much more collaborators than we are competitors,” she said.
Despite “incredible demographic challenges” facing all colleges and universities, Lachance believes Thomas can continue to grow because it offers an attractive array of assets. “We're very personal, yet affordable, relevant to today's economy, with a guarantee,” she says. Students are promised they'll find a suitable job within six months of graduation, or Thomas will make federal student loan payments for up to a year, according to the college website.