I think the first time I noticed a certain wanderlust inside of me was at the beginning of my junior year of high school. I had never really thought deeply about my future. I knew I wanted to avoid college and I wanted to write, but I didn’t know what life might look like for me thirty years from now. As I felt my curiosity about the world around me grow and found a certain sense of motivation that I hadn’t known for years, I eventually began to think more concretely about my future. But the more I felt like I had to go to college to fulfill my newfound aspirations, the more I realized that I couldn’t see myself living in Maine. Before, when I planned to just graduate high school and figure it out, Maine didn’t seem too bad—but the more I saw myself wanting a career that required passing through the initiation ritual of college education, the more Maine felt like somewhere I had to leave. The state was not necessarily hostile toward me, but it certainly did not feel supportive, either. Everyone else wanted to leave, too—after all, the wealthiest person I know was a Mainer who left. Why shouldn’t I leave Maine?
There’s a phrase I heard a long time ago in a discussion about why so many young people leave Maine: To explain the phenomenon, someone said very simply that Maine “is a great place to be from. Not to live in, but to be from.” Those words, from however long ago, have stuck with me since the moment I heard them. And though I don’t have any hard numbers to back me up, I think it rings true. In many ways, Maine is a pretty good place to grow up. Maine’s K-12 system—while not as well-resourced as schools in states like Massachusetts, Connecticut or New York—receives heavy investment and is prioritized in the state budget. Maine’s graduation rate is gradually increasing. Violent crime is extremely low. In the heated conversation about advantages in college admissions, Maine students who apply to college might find themselves benefiting from the geographic boost of being from an underrepresented, rural state. Many of Maine’s politicians and voters do genuinely want to invest in the future of the state, even if some programs are mismanaged. To put it simply, many want young Mainers to succeed, and some of Maine’s youth are lucky enough to do so.
But dependable, middle class jobs in lumber and agriculture are now rare, and the seasonal tourism jobs that do exist are heavily tied up in the fickle preferences of the East Coast upper class. Adjusted for cost of living, Maine has the tenth lowest per capita income in the country.
. Relative to local wages, Maine has some of the most expensive housing in the world. Many people moving to Maine have wealth independent of the Maine economy—causing dramatic gentrification.
All of these disadvantages become increasingly clear the more one enters adulthood. There are a lot of programs targeting teenagers but not a lot for twenty-somethings. Much of that support for young Mainers—programs, schools, etc.—cut off their benefits once recent high school graduates enter adulthood or find themselves trying to live on their own. “Maine is a great place to be from. Not to live in, but to be from.”
I eventually ended up deciding to stay in Maine to go to Bowdoin, but this is a choice I did not anticipate making. A part of me sees institutions like Bowdoin as a part of the solution to Maine’s woes of an aging population and brain drain. It gives young people starting their careers a reason—and a good one at that—to be in Maine and meets their needs even after they graduate from high school.
If Maine extended its strong support system for adolescents into young adulthood, a part of me wonders if I would be writing this column at all. Expanding programs like the Student Loan Repayment Tax Credit and possibly offering a variation of the credit for young people without a college degree would help to provide young people with a support network in Maine itself that could be used to build a future career. But, until then, I think that phrase I heard a decade ago will stick with me the way we never forget the first time we realize a cold truth about the world.