Bowdoin College students get a summery taste of local government in Maine

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TOPSHAM — Charlie Cubeta spent a lot of time on his mountain bike this summer.

The rising junior at Bowdoin College traversed all of Topsham’s trails, mapping them with a GPS and taking note of which ones needed work. While he might have done it for fun anyway, Cubeta was actually hard at work for the Topsham Planning Department as a summer fellow.

Cubeta is one of nearly 20 Bowdoin students who stayed in Maine this summer to work for local nonprofits and town governments on projects ranging from creating climate action plans to gardening to trail maintenance. Local organizations and the college split the cost of the fellowships, understanding that all parties benefit from the work the students do.

Mike Lachance, who will also be a junior, was a fellow at the Brunswick Planning Department. He spent the summer mapping trails and roads at the former Brunswick Naval Air Station.

The mapping will also benefit Bowdoin students. Leah Wang, a rising senior, is working with Lachance and Cubeta to create a map of local trails for incoming freshman at the college with the goal of getting more students to explore the surrounding communities. The data will also be available to local planning departments.

Although this year Wang was synthesizing other students’ data, last year she worked as a fellow at Bath City Hall, creating an inventory of sidewalks in town for a bicycle and pedestrian plan. She said she enjoyed working in municipal government, and thought every college student should see what makes a town tick.

“The importance of municipal employees isn’t obvious until you have worked for a town,” Wang said.

Lachance agreed, although he said he isn’t sure he would personally want to be a town employee.

“Working at the town office for 10 weeks has given me a tremendous respect for the town of Brunswick staff,” Lachance said in an email. “That being said, I’m not sure if I could handle working in town government – the night meetings, stressful situations, and politics would be tough to handle.”

Even if the students don’t all become town planners, local communities benefit from their work.

Anna Breinich, director of planning and development in Brunswick, said Lachance did a lot of the field work that planning staff didn’t have time to do.

“I have always felt that the type of quality that we get from the fellows … is equivalent to entry-level planning,” she said. “It helps us out tremendously and it also gives worthwhile experience to the fellow.”

The fellowships also give students new perspectives on the towns, and their relationships to the college.

“It’s interesting to see Bowdoin from the outside,” Cubeta said, adding that most students have a one-sided view of the college and it’s place in the community.

Lachance in particular has had a front-row seat on town-college politics by witnessing the process of rezoning Longfellow School in Brunswick. The multi-month process, which ended with the Planning Board unable to decide on density and recreational use of the property, involved multiple meetings between residents, college employees and town officials.

He said the process opened his eyes to the fact that neighbors of the college aren’t always thrilled by Bowdoin’s growth, although he appreciated how hard town staff worked to find a compromise between the college and Longfellow Avenue residents.

Wang said in her experience, having Bowdoin students working in local towns strengthens the relationship between the college and the municipalities. She said she hopes it changes residents’ opinions of the college, and vice versa.

“The fellowships allow for ongoing projects that let students learn while giving the towns really useful data, and I think that kind of two-part result is very powerful,” she said in an email.

Town staff agree that having Bowdoin students work for them has a positive effect on community relations.

“We didn’t interact with Bowdoin students often … but having (Wang and a previous summer fellow, Brooks Winner) working with the city I feel did have a big impact on how we view the students and the college,” explained Erika Benson, executive assistant to the Bath city manager, who has worked with Bowdoin summer fellows in the past.

“It was such a well-run program and both of those students were excellent and their capabilities were outstanding, and that impacted my view of Bowdoin students,” Benson said.

The lifestyle of summer, not just the fellowships, also enabled the students to learn more about Brunswick and the surrounding towns. Wang said she’s been to the farmer’s market twice a week, something she can’t do during the school year because work and classes get in the way.

Lachance admitted he didn’t know much about Brunswick before, but “working and living here during the summer taught me that there’s a whole lot more going on in Brunswick than I ever realized or appreciated.”

Emily Guerin can be reached at 781-3661 ext.123 or Follow her on Twitter: @guerinemily.

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Mike Lachance, a Bowdoin Colleg student and summer fellow in the Brunswick Planning Department, stands in a salt marsh during a site visit to the former Brunswick Naval Air Station.