Susan Collins tells hometown students to work together despite differences

11 months ago

CARIBOU, Maine — If Caribou students take one thing away from their visit with Susan Collins on Monday, the senator hopes they can put aside political differences and work toward their community’s greater good.

Collins met with eighth-graders at Caribou Community School after they took part in a mock legislature. Students played the roles of senators and representatives and debated the merits of real-life Maine legislative bills that would affect school districts.

Teachers and Collins could see how the experience had engaged students in issues of state government more than any textbook could.

“It gave me a real lift to see how engaged they were,” Collins said.

While speaking with students, Caribou native Collins said she could relate to the lessons of small-town life that students were experiencing.

Both of Collins’ parents, Don and Patricia Collins, were involved in community organizations and served as a Caribou city councilor and mayor at different times. Those early years and a college internship with then-U.S. Sen. Bill Cohen inspired Collins’ path into politics.

Admittedly, Collins said, she entered adulthood thinking she would become a teacher. But observing Maine native Cohen’s time in Washington helped her realize the positive influence lawmakers can have on their states.

“It was the difference [Cohen] made for the people of Maine and my parents who taught me we could all make a difference,” Collins said.

Collins’ 26-year tenure as a U.S. senator has taken her to familiar places, such as local dog sled races and summer parades, to more far-flung locales like Antarctica to observe climate research. One day, she told students, she’ll be voting on the Senate floor and the next she’ll be in various committee meetings.

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins (middle) poses with Caribou Community School teachers (from left to right) Holly Rhinebolt, Kim Barnes, Heather Anderson and Troy Barnes. (Melissa Lizotte | Aroostook Republican)

No matter where she is, she aims to be bipartisan and help legislators reach compromises that benefit everyday people, Collins said.

Though she did not name specific lawmakers or issues, Collins said that she would like to see less divisiveness in today’s political climate.

“Someone who disagrees with you is not your enemy. They may be your opponent on one issue but your ally on another,” Collins said. “I’m counting on your generation to help us get back to the ways politics used to be. When people worked together for a common cause.”

For students, meeting with Collins and briefly stepping into her shoes gave them a window into what Maine politics is like.

After meeting in their own committees, students discussed two proposed bills in the Maine Legislature: LD 156: An Act to Require Outdoor Recess Time for Students from Grades 6 to 8; and LD 1002: An Act to Require a Lunch Period of at Least 30 Minutes for Students and Reduce Food Waste.

Eighth-grader Mason St. Peter said that he spoke in favor of LD 156 so that students his age can have at least three recess periods per week.

Being in a mock legislature made St. Peter realize that he might have political aspirations one day.

“Maybe when I retire, I’ll think about it. You have to be [in Augusta] five days a week and it’s a big commitment,” St. Peter said.

Many students did not realize before Monday that anyone age 13 and older can submit written testimony or testify on legislative bills in Augusta or via Zoom.

It shows that even young people who can’t vote yet can make a difference, said eighth-grade student Mackenzie Cole.

“Everyone has different views, even if they’re younger, and our points of view matter,” Cole said.

Students’ took those voices seriously during mock house debates, said eighth-grade teacher Heather Anderson. So seriously that she, “Madam Speaker,” had to make sure the debate ended on time for other activities.

“The students were so engaged and had so much they wanted to say,” Anderson said. “They realized how much of a voice they can have and how they can make the world a better place.”