Love of traveling has taken Mike and Denise Dubyak to far-off destinations, but their roots are firmly planted in Maine as advocates for education and supporters of the foundation's Early Childhood Community Planning Grants program.

Your support of MaineCF’s new early childhood community planning grants shows your passion for education, starting with Maine’s youngest. What has moved you to so publicly advocate for early childhood education in Maine?

If you believe in education, like we do, and you look at the continuum from early childhood, to K-12, to higher education, we believe the most important component of optimizing a person’s chances to fulfill their career dreams starts in early childhood.

Studies conclusively show that in the first three years of life a child has the ability to utilize synapses that will allow better brain functioning over time. But the utilization of these brain synapses requires nurturing by any and all caregivers or the synapses not utilized will be lost over time. It’s one of those “use it or lose it” scenarios, but one where the opportunities for a developing child are critically essential.

If we want the children of our state to have the best chance to succeed, it is essential we recognize this scientific situation and do whatever we can to encourage caregivers to stimulate their infants and develop these synapses that will provide the foundation for optimal learning later in life. We believe it becomes the fundamental ingredient that offers a child the best chance to maximize their educational opportunities.

How did your early childhood experiences help shape your lives? And how have they influenced your roles as parents and grandparents?

Mike: I was born into a family of three older sisters. So being the only boy, I may have had the good fortune of the three of them along with my parents, providing an atmosphere of stimulation that developed my synapses. In the case of my daughter, Iva, I had read a book that espoused the synapse theory of development and did everything I could to physically, emotionally, and intellectually stimulate her to be happy, engaged, and aware during her first three years of life and beyond.

Today, she is a very capable young woman. Denise and I have encouraged her daughter, Kara, to read about the synapses and embrace the practice of stimulation, which she has in a big way. Her two children, now five and one, both seem to be very capable, engaged, balanced, aware young boys.

Denise: I grew up in a military family and we were constantly moving. I went to 11 different schools in 12 years – I stayed at some schools for two years. Think about that. That’s a lot of change. I learned to be flexible, adaptable, accepting, and was socialized in a sink or swim fashion. I realized early on that I wanted to be self-sufficient and independent and began to understand the impact an education has on achieving that goal. That said, it was my motivational force for completing an undergraduate degree then onto a master’s.

We both see the endless possibilities an education provides within our family (children, nephews, nieces, and grandchildren). An education is the key to opening the mind as well as doors.

Mike, you are on the board of Educate Maine and was its first chairman. What has surprised you about the state of education in Maine?

Educate Maine was created when two organizations merged, one K-12 and the other focused on higher education. At that time I was helping in the creation of Project Login, an initiative to increase the number of computer scientists in the state. Our initiative discovered that the biggest reason for the low turnout of computer scientists in higher education was linked to a low interest in STEM in K-12. The only way to increase the turnout of computer scientists was to stimulate STEM interest in the K-12 years so more enrolling college students signed up for STEM degrees, including computer science.

So it became apparent with the merger that the pathways of education could be better linked and synergized to optimize results and outcomes. It also became apparent that to truly optimize results we needed to embrace and include early childhood development, which would provide greater synergies of the educational pathways.

I also believe there is mutual benefit to students and the private sector the more the private sector participates in educational enrichment programs in the state. Educate Maine’s board is comprised of two-thirds private sector members and one-third educators. Because of these developments, I believe Educate Maine now has the ability to advocate, create, and implement programs that are synergistically linked for optimal outcomes and the private sector needs for education are better embraced by educators along the pathways.

Where do you think Maine is making strides in education – and where is it falling short?

Mike: It may be personal to me, but I believe in some instances and with some career paths, creating better integration of the private sector with a student’s education will provide far greater opportunities for the students of Maine and for the businesses that want to thrive and grow in Maine.

I think the state is starting to do a better job supporting and encouraging experiential learning in K-12 and higher education. We have found at Educate Maine that fostering experiential learning in K-12, like robotics programs, increases a student’s interest in STEM learning. In addition, programs like internships in higher education prove the connection of student to an organization reduces attrition of students out of a degree path and enhances students’ chances of landing a position with the organizations offering and participating in the experiential learning. As an example, of the approximately 150 interns supported by Educate Maine’s Project>Login program in computer science, about 60 to 65 percent are eventually hired by the companies where they interned.

You both have been business owners, and you also have a background in human relations, Denise. What action steps can employers take to support education at the community level?

Denise:  It’s got to be a two-way street; educational institutions need to support businesses by working with them to determine what skills are needed for a successful workforce (think the technology gap), offering programs that fill those gaps. Employers need to work with educational institutions to support them in that endeavor either through work study, internships, on-the-job training, financial support and/or a time commitment of their staff.

I have been a strong proponent for employee education in the workplace and worked to have policies in place to support employee education. It is easier now than it was in years past with flexible schedules and online education to enable employees to get their degrees during their off hours. Many businesses offer tuition assistance, which is a fabulous way for employees to commit to an education and  bring those learnings back into the workplace and commit to their employer.

Early in my career I worked for an organization that placed individuals in job training programs – it was a great way to provide individuals with an on-the-job learning experience and benefit the employer – it’s win/win. Flexibility is paramount.

What is your message to the youth of today about their future in Maine?

Mike: Maine has been transitioning from a strong natural resource-based economy to more of an intellectual capital-based economy. This development should encourage parents, educators, government, and businesses to work cooperatively to build strong pathways in education that support these continually emerging opportunities for students to maximize their educational attainment and be better prepared to qualify for the jobs of the future in Maine. In many cases, students must realize job paths that may have been available to their parents most likely will not be available to them, but education will be the key to their career success.

Denise: Follow your dreams, believe in yourself, take chances, fall down, learn, do it again – whether that takes you out of the state or you start your own business here, I can almost guarantee you if you leave Maine you will look for ways to get back ! Remain flexible. There are no guarantees.

How would you like to be remembered? What is your legacy to the state you call home?

Mike: When I retired from WEX and there was a question about my legacy, I put forward the following metaphor to capture my legacy intent. It is a sports metaphor, which says, “If you play for what’s on the front of your jersey then people will remember what’s on the back.”

In sports, usually the name of the team is on the front and on the back is your name. When retiring at WEX and during a company meeting, I showed a jersey that had WEX and Maine on the front and then flashed the back with my name on it. That was my last slide.

So I hope my work at WEX and my work within the state of Maine will be the reason I’m possibly remembered. Once retiring, I made a conscious decision to put my energies into state initiatives that could make a difference, like FocusMaine. I have turned down publicly traded board opportunities because of this commitment.

Denise: I’ve lived in Maine longer than I have lived anywhere. It is truly my home. I love the natural beauty of the state but even more the people of Maine. I spent most of my adult working life in Maine and find Mainers to be hard-working, honest, reliable, and caring people. I don’t want that to ever be lost.

There are many young people who are not or will not have opportunities available to them to pursue their dreams due to financial restrictions. There are great organizations in the state – Alfond Foundation, Mitchell Institute, Olympia Snowe Women's Leadership Institute, Maine Community Foundation, to name a few – that are in place to support educational opportunities. We want to be part of the legacy that pays it forward for those who have the passion but maybe not the resources to fulfill their dreams.