With fewer students on campus, Unity College and its namesake city are changing

Unity defines itself as a university town. But now most of the students are gone.

Unity College was founded to protect the city from rural decline, but following sweeping curriculum reforms that sharply reduced the number of students on campus, Unity residents are wondering how to adapt in the future. changing from its namesake school.

The private liberal arts college was an integral part of the community of 2,127 people. Its 650 students on campus filled dormitories and rented apartments in Unity and surrounding towns. They served in the Unity Fire Department, making up about half of the volunteer team. They ate at the local pizzeria, worked part-time in the grocery store, and spent evenings playing board games at Unity Kitchen, a Main Street restaurant that catered for students and faculty at Unity College.

When the pandemic began in the spring of 2020, college officials first sent students home. Then the school instituted a radical change in the way it educates. Instead of the traditional four-year model, where students take in-person classes for two semesters per year, Unity College has focused on online classes and five-week semesters. Students can also choose a blended learning option if they want to take in-person classes as well.

Executives at Unity College say the change has been good for the school, which now has more than 2,500 full-time students seeking a degree. And the students in the hybrid program returned to campus in September, although it’s not known how many.

Melik Khoury, president of Unity College, said there are 228 students in the blended learning program, or nearly 10 percent of the student body. But he declined to say how many of those students currently live on campus.

Melik Peter Khoury, President of Unity College. Credit: Courtesy of Unity College

“These blended learning students decide each term whether or not they want to come and live on the Unity campus,” he said. “We are very happy to find them on our magnificent residential campus. ”

But locals believe only 50 or 60 students lived on campus in the recently concluded five-week semester – meaning the college’s change in leadership has been less uniformly positive for the city of Unity. .

Just ask Blaine Parsons, the fire chief, whose numbers plummeted when the college became remote.

“When the college closed we lost 12 guys in the department,” he said. “It’s not just the fire department… It affects the whole county, in terms of emergency services, absolutely.”

Or ask Tamika Adjemian, who opened Unity Kitchen in December 2019. At the time, the cafe was bustling with faculty members stopping for a lunch sandwich and students gathering for parties of. frenzied games. But challenges abounded, including the pandemic, labor shortage, inflation, supply chain disruptions – and the lack of students and faculty.

“We are in a perfect storm,” she said.

Adjemian made the difficult decision to shut down the cafe. His last day was November 6.

“I bought this building and this business because there was a strong college here,” she said. “Absolutely, I think the loss of 650 students has an impact on this whole city. ”

City and dress

For many years, it seemed that the fates of the college and the city were indelibly linked. Unity College was founded in 1965 by local leaders who were looking for a way to avoid the rural decline that was becoming the reality of too many Maine communities. The college started out with just 39 students, a donated farm, and a chicken hatchery, but the goals were big.

“I kept going through these small towns [in central Maine], and I could see churches being boarded up and some of these shops boarded up, and I thought, my God, these towns are dying on the vine, “said school founder and philanthropist Bert Clifford, who died in 2001, said years ago about his vision. “I made a vow that if I could help her, I would never let my city do this.”

There have been financial ups and downs over the years – at a low point in the early 1990s, the school was $ 2.5 million in debt and faculty members volunteered to be without their paycheck and maintain the 240 acre main campus grounds with their own lawn. mowers. But students, teachers and the community have come together to put the school back on the brink.

This is one of the reasons it is so shocking for Hauns Bassett, a graduate who moved to Unity, to walk past campus and see few students there. In the past, students jogged, walked, played guitar, tossed Frisbees, or took group lab lessons in the woods or near the pond.

Everything has changed, he says.

“There is a difference in our community,” Bassett said. “It’s just calmer. I was really used to seeing groups of students walking on the pedestrian bridge in town, going to [the Unity Shop N Save], by going to the Unity House of Pizza. There were always groups of people walking around.

A sign on the Unity College campus. Credit: Abigail Curtis / BDN

Parsons noticed it as well. It’s something he thinks the founders of the college wouldn’t like.

“The townspeople were trying to find a way to make Unity thrive, so they brought the college to town,” he said. “I really think the founding fathers, those who have passed away, would certainly turn in their graves.”

Khoury said school officials hope more students return to the Unity College campus as “post-pandemic confidence grows.” But it will be completely their choice, not a requirement of the program.

Meanwhile, the college is developing other sites, including the Technical Institute for Environmental Professions, which is being built on the Pineland Farms campus in New Gloucester. This institute will serve a different student body, he said, made up of students who are not looking for a four-year residential program.

“Our programs allow maximum flexibility, and ultimately it’s up to the students to decide how and where they want to learn,” Khoury said.

For his part, Bassett wants Unity College administrators to focus more on the local community, citing Colby College’s investment in downtown Waterville as an example of what a school can do for its community.

“Colby College is not going anywhere,” he said. “Unity’s solution is to pack up and move to Pineland?” This is something that I do not understand. Unity has a lot to offer, which is why I think so many of us wanted to live in this headquarters.

Challenges but “not a ghost town”

Even with a greatly reduced local student body, the city is still special, according to community members such as Penny Picard Sampson. The chosen one graduated from Unity College and knows how important the school has been to the city. But that’s not the only important thing there.

“People were like, ‘Unity is going to be devastated. We will be a ghost town, ”she said. “But no, we won’t, because we are a service hub. We have not become a little ghost town. We still have a lot of activities.

Unity is home to many small businesses and professional offices, as well as a thriving Amish community. This is where the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, which hosts the Common Ground Fair, is headquartered. The Belfast and Moosehead Lake Railroad offers popular weekend train trips from its Depot Street station.

There is also no sign that the rental market has been affected by fewer university students looking for apartments in the city. Emily Newell, a real estate agent with an office on Main Street in Unity manages 39 rental units in the area. In the past, students made up 25 to 30 percent of its tenants. Now she only has one student renting from her home.

“We are renting to fewer students because there are fewer students here,” she said. “But overall, we’re still full.”

This may be a side effect of the mid-coast housing crisis in Maine, she said. Still, Newell, a former selectman, doesn’t want to downplay what Unity College’s changes could mean for his city.

She has not forgotten the pain of the summer of 2020, when 30% of the college’s staff were made redundant or put on leave just before school leaders announced their intention to reorganize academic offerings. Many people who lost their jobs eventually left the community, she said.

“He’s a big employer. It’s important, ”Newell said. “But we’re not going to completely collapse as a city because they have fewer students now.”


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