December 28, 2010

University of Maine at Augusta reaches across Pacific

Professor expects as many as 100 islanders to enroll

AUGUSTA — Two students from the other side of the International Date Line will enroll in classes at the University of Maine at Augusta in the coming weeks, but they won’t have far to travel.

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Professor Jodi Williams, who coordinates the 270-student library science program at the University of Maine at Augusta, recently traveled to the Micronesian nation of Palau to recruit students for the online-only degree program.

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The two students are the first of 50 to 100 from the islands of Micronesia expected to enroll in UMA’s information and library services program over the next five years.

The first students will enroll when the new semester begins in the coming weeks.

“We’re eager to see how this evolves and how it develops, but I think it’s got a lot of good promise,” said UMA professor Jodi Williams, who coordinates the 270-student, entirely online program that already enrolls students from across Maine and the United States.

The students from Palau, Guam, the Northern Marianas Islands, Federated States of Micronesia and other Pacific islands will enroll in the program through an agreement between UMA and Palau Community College.

Other pacts are in the works involving UMA and other Pacific island colleges.

“It’s going to grow pretty quickly,” Williams said. “It’s exciting.”

Williams returned from a trip to Palau on Thursday that gave her the chance to introduce UMA’s library services program to university officials, professors and students. Williams also continued her work helping Palau Community College move its library services program online, to make it more widely available on the thousands of islands that make up Micronesia.

“It was sort of surreal and fantastical all at the same time,” Williams said of her trip, her first to the island nation and the first time she met Palauan colleagues she’d communicated with for months.

Palau Community College offers only an associate’s degree in library science, and the agreement with UMA will allow its students to pursue bachelor’s degrees through UMA’s program.

“If their associate’s degree becomes widely available through Micronesia, it’s a natural feeder,” Williams said.

The UMA library services program is among the only bachelor’s-level — much less online-only — programs of its kind in the United States, as the field often demands master’s degrees.

The program — originally conceived to help rural libraries train their staff members — began as an offering through UMA’s interactive television system, which broadcasts to remote campuses throughout Maine.

“It’s grown a lot,” Williams said, adding that 70 percent of currently enrolled students live outside of Maine. “There’s a need for people who are currently working in libraries who want to earn a degree in an area they can immediately apply to their jobs.”

UMA signed its articulation agreement with Palau Community College over the summer, and Williams expects to draft up additional agreements in the coming months.

The coming semester — with two Palauan students enrolled in the UMA program — will serve as a test run for the collaboration.

While inconsistent Internet connections on the Micronesian islands might occasionally stand in the way, Williams said, “the Internet has allowed them to really open up what they can offer their students.”

In Micronesia, Williams said, students studying library science are applying their class work to their communities, where they’re helping transform local institutions that simply store books into 21st-century libraries that connect people to information.

“They’re fun-loving, they love education, they love libraries and they’re big advocates,” Williams said of the library science students she met in Palau. “You heard story after story of what they’ve been advocating for and how much going to college has really changed their lives.”

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