Leo Trudel 07 poles his canoe on the St. Francis River in northern Maine. The river is the international boundary, separating the Trudel familys land in Maine from New Brunswick. The family often canoes to its land, saving a long drive on rough and sometimes impassable logging roads.
Photo by Fred Field
Photo by Fred Field
Trudel, now an economics and government double major, hadn't graduated with honors or been elected class president. He had no GPA. He was disappointed by his first SAT scores but not entirely surprised.
"Those were the first tests I ever took in my life," Trudel said.
Not just standardized tests. Tests of any kind.
Trudel, who hails from the northern Maine woods (literally), had never been in a formal school until college. He was short on academic credentials but, in the highly competitive world of college admissions, with applicants looking for any way to stand out, Trudel jumped off the page.
"Normally you would say, 'Well, this is never going to work,'" said Steve Thomas, Colby's director of admissions. "But there was something electric about him. His story is just so compelling."
In fact, Trudel's presence may be the only thing electric about him. He was raised outside the town of Cabot, Vermont, where he lived off the grid with his parents and three sisters.
But off the grid in Vermont was suburban compared to the family's next stop: Township 18, Range 10, an unorganized (as in no town, no services) swath of rugged forest on the Canadian border 14 miles west of Fort Kent, Maine.
The Trudels"Rhode Island native Julie, a stay-at-home mom, and Massachusetts-raised Leo Jr., a college professor in business and economics"bought 280 acres of land, including a 30-acre island in the St. John River. They built a house and barns, cutting logs and moving them with draft horses to their own sawmill.
That the Trudels are the township's only residents is no surprise, considering that the most convenient way to get to the family farm is truly over the river and through the woods.
"It's very difficult to get there because we have to rely on the road the paper companies built," Trudel said. "Even then, it's an extra hour to drive all the way around. Normally we just canoe across if we want to get in and out."
With the road impassable during winter and Maine's spring "mud season," the family paddled or poled back and forth year-round, preferring to come and go through Canada because the St. Francis River is narrower. They stayed off the river only in the spring when ice was coming downstream. "That's the one time we are literally locked either in or out, because the ice breaks up," he said. "The river's moving, there are ice chunks, and it's dangerous. We just stay on the farm."
With horses, cattle, sheep, and chickens, along with gardens that supplied the family with "everything but grain," there was plenty to do. And along with chores, there was the need for education. While some home-schooling methods are structured, the Trudels' was based on the children's curiosity.
"My mother had this philosophy when we were young that if we were motivated to learn then we would do it," Trudel said. "She was always supportive. If we had a question, she was ruthless about finding the answer for us. Otherwise she just assumed we would do most of the work ourselves."
For Trudel it was one independent study after another. When he was 12 it was chemistry. The family took chemistry books from the local library and his mother, who has a bachelor's degree from Franklin Pierce College in New Hampshire, brought textbooks home and helped Trudel with the material, he said.
"Otherwise, there was no order to what we learned," he said. "There was no particular level at which we started or ended. It was just wherever we wanted to be."
Books were supplemented by discussion. "We talked around the dinner table," Trudel said. "If I was doing chores with my father he would give me these business problems. Or give me a verbal business plan and ask me to determine what the profit would be. That was my type of schooling."
When he was 17, Trudel joined in extracurricular activities at a high school. As a homeschooler, he joined the cross country team at Fort Kent High School, following that with wrestling and a part in the school play. Still, when he went to apply to college (his choice, not his parents') Trudel was a mystery. Thomas, who admits two or three homeschoolers each year, still was astounded. And captivated. "He was just completely raw," he said. "But there was this will you really couldn't deny."
Though Trudel was denied admission, he was advised to go to the University of Maine, retake the SATs, and apply again. He did just that, earned nearly a 4.0 GPA at the University of Maine at Fort Kent, brought up his ACT scores, and showed up in Thomas's office again.
He was accepted, but the biggest challenge was ahead of him. "My first few semesters were extremely hard," Trudel said.
His earlier free-form education made it hard for him to adjust to the structure of Colby courses. "I love learning," he said. "I usually like doing research, but I don't particularly like sitting through class. I don't like tests. I don't like having to learn a set number of things that I don't see as particularly useful or applicable. But that's an old complaint."
Michael Donihue '79, associate professor of economics, said Trudel clearly was less prepared than other students in his macroeconomics class. Trudel survived, Donihue said, because of "his sheer determination and his ability to display knowledge outside of traditional exams."
And the adjustment to the cultural and social side of Colby?
"In this case it was just that everything was easier," Trudell said, smiling. "I didn't have to chop wood and start a fire to get hot water."
With that spare time, Trudel went out for the football team, not only as a walk-on, but a walk-on who had never put on a helmet or caught a pass. A skeptical Coach Ed Mestieri had him film games and practices that first season. Trudel eventually joined the team. A strong safety, he said he was pretty much a practice player but loved every minute of his football experience. "I liked the competition. I liked pushing myself to my limit every single day and getting a little bit better. I liked the brotherhood of the team," Trudel said.
Said Mestieri: "He was respected. That's the key word."
And how did other Colby students react when he told them about his background? Trudel said he tells close friends but soon gave up on sharing his experience with casual acquaintances. "The typical response is that they don't believe me," he said. "They actually think I'm making it up."