ORONO, Me. — By the time she was 32, Karen Carrion was living in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., working for a concert promoter and looking for a change. She had never attended college and considered it out of the question because of the cost.
That changed when Ms. Carrion’s mother, a Maine native and a member of the Penobscot Indian Nation, urged her to apply to the University of Maine and its North American Indian Waiver and Scholarship Program.
“I probably wouldn’t have gone to college at all if not for this,” Ms. Carrion, a sophomore majoring in women’s studies, said between classes at the university’s flagship campus in Orono, about eight miles north of Bangor.
The scholarship pays for tuition, fees, room and board for any undergraduate or graduate student who can prove membership in a state or federally recognized tribe or can prove direct descent from a member.
Members of recognized Canadian tribes are also eligible, though students from outside Maine must first live in the state for one year to establish residency.
About 500 students throughout the University of Maine system are enrolled in the program. About 160 of them, 40 of whom are from out of state, are enrolled at Orono, said John Bear Mitchell, coordinator of the waiver program.
The program dates to 1934, when university trustees voted to grant full scholarships to five students who were members of the Penobscot or Passamaquoddy tribes. In 1971, the criteria were broadened to include all North American Indians, but few took advantage. In 2001, the university appointed Mr. Mitchell to streamline the program, and enrollment has increased.
“I think it’s our responsibility as a land grant university to work together with the state’s first people and ensure they not only have access, but succeed in higher education,” said Edna Mora Szymanski, the senior vice president and provost.
Mr. Mitchell said the program cost the state about $2 million last year.
Other colleges and universities around the country offer similar programs. Among them are the University of Minnesota-Morris and Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo., which give qualified American Indians free tuition, and the University of Massachusetts system, which offers tuition waivers to Indians who are state residents. Michigan waives tuition at all public colleges and universities for students who prove their tribal lineage or membership and reside in the state for a year or more.
Syracuse University offers free tuition, fees, room and board to first-year and transfer students from local tribes.
According to a 2005 report by the American Council on Education, the number of American Indian students attending college doubled from 1977 to 2002. Mr. Mitchell, a member of the Penobscot Nation, said the Maine program helped empower its students and gave them a chance to return to their communities and give back.
Mr. Mitchell is also a co-director of the Wabanaki Center at the university, which studies the four largest tribes in Maine: the Maliseet, Micmac, Passamaquoddy and Penobscot. According to the 2000 census, six-tenths of 1 percent of Maine residents, or about 7,000 people, are American Indian.
The center is a gathering place for Indian students, many of whom lived on small reservations before coming to college. “It’s a safe place. It provides students with a set of relations within the university community,” said Shaerri Mitchell, 36, a graduate student whose grandfather founded the center. “It models the communal structure of a reservation.” She and Mr. Mitchell are cousins.
Sonya Lacoute, who attended the university as an undergraduate and will receive her master’s in social work next May, came to Orono from Pleasant Point Indian Reservation, which is home to about 2,000 people in far eastern Maine.
Ms. Lacoute, who works now in the tribal court for the Penobscot Nation on Indian Island, about four miles from campus, said the scholarship allowed her to attend college and the center helped her adjust to life in a more urban setting than she was used to.
“To me, this was the big city,” she said. “In that very different environment, it was nice to know that there were other natives here in a very welcoming environment.”
Mr. Mitchell said he hoped to bring more out-of-state students to the program. He does not have much of a recruiting budget, he said, and news of the scholarship travels mainly by word of mouth. Students are going to high school classrooms around Maine to publicize the program.
“We’re still underrepresented in the University of Maine system,” Mr. Mitchell said. “For a long time the public thought we were needy, and we want to show them that we’re not. We want to educate students, graduate them, and give the state more tax money and a return on their investment.”