This past weekend, an estimated 1,687 students walked across the stage to receive degrees from the University of Maine, the four of us included. After the initial euphoria wears off, where will these graduates go? Will they stay locally within the greater Bangor area? Or will they start their professional careers and working lives elsewhere? What factors will influence that decision?

These are important questions for Maine and the region, as Maine’s demographic decline means a shrinking labor force and a declining tax base. These are also questions we spent this entire academic year researching, with some surprising results.

With promotional help from the UMaine Alumni Association and the Bangor Daily News, we surveyed approximately 900 respondents (233 current students and 667 University of Maine alumni). The project was a collaboration with Bangor City Councilors Gibran Graham and Ben Sprague, undertaken in Professor Rob Glover’s Practicum in Engaged Policy Studies — a course in the Political Science department at UMaine where students conduct policy research on issues that matter to the community in collaboration with community partners.

For the most part, the results align with what national data suggest. Decisions about relocation are exhaustively researched by organizations like the U.S. Census Bureau and non-governmental outlets such as Pew Research Center and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The main factors drawing someone to an area are 1) the availability of jobs, 2) the availability of quality, affordable housing, and 3) family-related decisions. These factors ranked among the most important for both our alumni and student respondents as well.

Here is where things get interesting. The full results are fairly detailed and tell us more than we can represent here. But a few things stand out.

First, contact matters. Students spending little time in the Bangor area were less likely to view it as an attractive destination to settle after graduation. However, as students spent more time in Bangor, they viewed it as a significantly more attractive destination to settle.

Also of note is location of contact. Those students visiting Bangor only a few times a month tend to concentrate around the mall area. They go there primarily for shopping, and may not see anything that distinguishes Bangor from other small cities. However, those that spend more time here gravitate toward the Downtown area extending all the way up toward Broadway. To the extent that Bangor has an “anchor” or “magnet” area for recent graduates that distinguishes it as an attractive place to settle, this is it.

Secondly, and perhaps the most important insight from this study, work and internship experiences matter. Roughly 10 percent of our respondents had held a paid or unpaid internship in the Bangor region. This group was twice as likely to settle in the area. The same relationship held true for work experience generally (even if it was a part-time, traditional job). Those working in Bangor were about twice as likely to want to settle here.

This suggests that the University of Maine, the city of Bangor, and local businesses and nonprofits need to engage in a concerted effort to figure out ways to enhance internship and work opportunities for students in the area. Bangor-area career fairs and ongoing partnerships with departments and research centers on campus could pay huge dividends for the region over time.

We’ll close with one more hopeful insight. The results of this research present a hopeful outlook on Bangor’s future, especially given that 61 percent of student respondents stated that they would like to live in a small city. If Bangor takes the right approach, it could be that city (and the fact that it is the youngest city in Maine suggests we’re on the right track). Collaboration between the University of Maine and the city of Bangor will be central to accomplishing of these goals and this research project represents just one example of the ways that we can work together to make it happen.

Cameron Huston, Sarah Nicols, Spencer Warmuth and Gareth Warr are all graduating students at the University of Maine enrolled in Professor Rob Glover’s Practicum in Engaged Policy Studies. They were invited to contribute a guest OpEd for the Maine chapter of the Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications.