Former Bangor High School students across the globe reflect on home, what might bring them back

Posted June 15, 2013, at 11:24 a.m.
Last modified June 16, 2013, at 7:14 p.m.

There were 26 winners of the Superintendent’s Award in Bangor High School’s 2002 class. Only one is still in Bangor.

Why did they go? What are they doing? What might convince them to come back?

Katie Woodcock works in Boston for an international engineering firm. She was the only student in this selection of award winners to attend a higher education institution in Maine — Bowdoin College.

“I believe that it was possible that, once I obtained my civil engineering degree, I might have found work in Bangor,” Woodcock said. “At that point, however, I had spent nearly all my life in Maine — most in the Bangor area — and I wanted to experience life outside of Maine.”

“There are many great things about Bangor. […] At this point, though, I am still concentrating on settling into Boston and have not really thought about coming back,” she said

Bo Shi left Bangor to study at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A few years ago, several of Shi’s college friends recruited him to work on a mobile video game startup company. The group headed west, settling in northern California. A year ago, Shi moved to San Francisco with two colleagues to start another technology company.

“With respect to people in high tech, particularly consumer technology, the exodus isn’t really localized to Bangor; it’s a problematic phenomenon for any place not called the Bay Area, Calif.,” Shi said. “In short, the jobs I was looking for weren’t available in Bangor.”

“I love the Bangor area and wouldn’t hesitate to raise a family there,” he said. “The economic situation for me is a significant barrier, though.”

Emily McGee (formerly Smith) is a blogger. She first left the Queen City to attend college in Washington, D.C., and “see what life was like in a new place.” She studied abroad in Ghana and South Africa, and volunteered for the Peace Corps in Vanuatu. Her husband’s work takes the couple across the globe, and she writes about her experiences abroad and their relationship. She is now living in Atlanta.

“In the past 10 years, my experiences living in other cities, states and countries have exposed me to so much more than I could ever get living in Bangor. Leaving Bangor changed me, and has made me unwilling to return,” McGee said.

She acknowledged that she could find work in Bangor with her teaching degree and freelance writing experience, but her husband’s job keeps them mobile. She said she and her husband tried to relocate to Portland after her time in the Peace Corps, but couldn’t find any jobs that paid well.

“We didn’t really consider living in Bangor though,” she said. “We assumed there would be even fewer opportunities.”

Katherine Miller attended Tufts University in Boston. She went on to work at Boston Children’s Hospital and then for UNICEF in Nicaragua. A tropical illness brought her back to the state, where she earned a graduate degree in social work at the University of Southern Maine. Miller recently moved to to New York City to work for a publishing company. She said she plans to stay there indefinitely.

“I have met Mainers all over the country and world, and there is a definite strong pride in our Maine roots — hailing from Bangor is like an extra mark of honor,” Miller said.

“My sense has always been that if I were to return to Maine in the future it would only be Portland, but Bangor is strong in my blood,” she said. “I prefer a larger, more diverse, metropolitan community, such as Portland. Opportunities in my career simply do not exist in Bangor.”

Emily Capehart works for the NCAA as assistant director of Academic and Membership Affairs in its national office in Indianapolis. She attended Brown University in Rhode Island before moving to Washington, D.C. and taking a job as a paralegal at an international law firm. She then decided to attend law school at the University of Notre Dame, earning her degree in May 2012.

As a former student athlete, she said she would like to apply her legal career to her background in sports.

“While there aren’t many professional opportunities in Maine that coincide with my interest in college athletics, I did take and become a member of the Maine bar this past fall,” Capeheart said, adding that she may return to the legal practice in the future, and there might be opportunities in Maine, where the legal market is smaller.

“I can’t think of one classmate from Bangor who would balk at the idea of returning to Maine if there was a better job market for the skills they may have acquired or developed out of state,” she said.

Alex Shapero says he left Bangor because of the “standard ‘seeking broader experiences’

trope” and decided to attend Cornell University in Upstate New York. He lived in Spain and Israel for two years and then moved to Washington D.C. For the past two years, he has been working toward a graduate degree at New York University that combines a nonprofit and government management degree with a master’s in Hebrew and Judaic studies.

Religion led him away from the Queen City, he said.

“My direction is almost entirely pointed to the Jewish nonprofit sector, something not terribly in demand or vibrant in the Bangor area,” Shapero said, pointing to what he called a declining Jewish population in Bangor.

There are no longer enough resources, such as religious schooling and kosher food options, to sustain a large Jewish community. It would even be difficult to assemble a prayer quorum of 10 men, he said.

“I want to build healthier Jewish communities and nonprofit organizations, but on the Jewish side there isn’t enough raw material in Bangor to work with,” he said. For those reasons, as well as finances, a move to Bangor is “not in the cards.”

Eric Franzosa is in the midst of a 2-3-year fellowship in the biostatistics department at the Harvard School of Public Health. He left Bangor in 2002 to attend Brown University. Afterward, he began applying to computational biology doctoral programs in New England.

“One of these programs was at the University of Maine, and I seriously considered attending this program, which would have meant moving back to Bangor or Orono,” Franzosa said. “Ultimately, I selected a program at Boston University because it was a bit more well established than the UMaine program and going there would satisfy my curiosity of living in Boston for a while.”

“On a professional level, there were simply far more opportunities in my field outside of Bangor and Maine in general,” he said. “Like my parents, I can imagine that I’ll eventually get tired of living in a larger city and want to settle somewhere quieter, and Bangor could be a nice option for that. I would like to find a permanent position at a university, so if a suitable position opened up at the University of Maine I could see applying for it.”

Lindsay Bigda works in Lima, Peru, running the communications program for Medlife, an international non-governmental organization that aims to help impoverished families. Medlife was started by Nick Ellis, who grew up in Bangor and is the older brother of Lucas Ellis, another winner of the 2002 Superintendent’s Award, according to Bigda. She studied journalism at Syracuse University, as well as international development at Boston University, and decided to gear her skills toward advocacy communication.

“That often makes me feel limited either to working abroad or to living in notorious nonprofit hubs like New York, Washington or San Francisco,” she said. “Every once in awhile I do check, just to see, if there are jobs in Maine in my field. Usually there are a handful in Portland, but I have never seen one in Bangor that really matches my career interests.”

“Sometimes leaving the place you are from is important, as it opens you up to many different perspectives. I mean this in the sense that Bangor is not a very culturally or ethnically diverse place,” Bigda said. “On the other hand, the experience of living very far away can also highlight what is special about the place where you grew up.”

Tim Szal started his own graphic and architectural design firm in Newton, Mass. He first left Maine for school. He majored in economics at Trinity College in Hartford, where he met his wife. He earned a master’s degree in 2009 from the University of Michigan and entered into one of the worst job markets for architects in a long time, he said, so he started his own business.

“My wife and I would love to come back to Bangor,” Szal said. “It’s a great place to raise a family.”

Since he has his own design firm, he could easily work in Bangor, he said, but his wife, a tax attorney for the state of Massachusetts, would want to work in Augusta, a long commute from Bangor, and the closest corporations and firms related to her field are in Portland.

“So as our goals stand right now, Bangor unfortunately isn’t in the cards for us.”

Emily Litwack is a 4th grade teacher in Israel, where she moved at age 18. She grew up in a secular Jewish family in Bangor and became interested in her heritage in high school. She said she felt “claustrophobic” in Bangor because of the lack of diversity and was drawn to her ancestral homeland. She left in January 2002 and “never looked back.”

“I had a beautiful childhood in Maine and I got an excellent education in [Bangor High School],” she said. “I am grateful that I grew up there, but equally grateful that I was able to leave.”

She says she would never leave Israel.

When asked what might bring her back to Bangor, she said, “dreams. Build a city that allows her young people to dream. To dream of a life beyond high school, to dream of a career, of building a home, of creating something new, of beginning some adventure. That’s what we’re all looking for. So make Bangor a place where they can fulfill their dreams, and they’ll come back on their own.”