Less than a month after graduating from Thomas College last May, Paige Costa opened her first retail storefront.
Costa, 21, is the co-founder and managing partner at North Star Apothecary, a small-batch, artisanal medical cannabis dispensary on U.S. Route 201 in Fairfield. The brightly lit 400-square-foot space is the first retail lens of her family’s North Star Farm.
“I love this sort of thing, the welcoming we got from the town, this industry,” Costa said on a recent rainy day from behind the store’s neatly-stocked front counter. “I love what I do.”
Costa graduated with her bachelor’s degree in entrepreneurship/small business from Thomas in May 2020 amid the early months of the coronavirus pandemic.
There was much ado about the challenging job market 2020 college graduates found themselves in. Many of Thomas College’s students are from the area and stay after graduation. This past year’s class was no exception, producing an eclectic mix of professionals. Of the college’s 123 undergraduate and 72 graduate students in the 2020 graduating class, 88% are employed full-time. The class of 2019 had a 92% job placement rate.
“I think it’s really cool to be part of such a driven group of people,” said Costa, who is working on a master’s degree in business administration from Thomas.
Provost Thomas Edwards said the college always targets a pragmatic approach to a student’s major and the job market. Internships or other experiences mimicked the pandemic challenges of those who employed students.
“The fact that this year was a challenge with the pandemic just emphasized how important that focus really is,” Edwards said. “It disrupted the normal flow when it comes to internships, but our students pivoted very well.”
Throughout the pandemic, many companies contracted or instituted hiring freezes. After suffering during the pandemic’s outset, America’s young adults ages 20-35, experienced the same unemployment impact as middle and older aged adults, according to working research from the National Bureau of Economic Research. When sorted by educational attainment, those with four-year college degrees experienced lower rates of unemployment than those with less education. One of the researchers, Yongseok Shin of Washington University in St. Louis, said in an email that researchers likely do not have access to data granular enough to identify the college class of 2020.
Thomas, like many colleges, contributes directly to the state’s economic development; 75% of the student body is from Maine, and in some years, more than 85% of graduates stay in Maine. Research from the Wall Street Journal and Emsi, a labor analytics firm, found between 50-60% of Maine’s college graduates stay in the state.
More than half of the college’s class of 2020, 54% of graduates, are employed within 50 miles of the college. There are more students employed within a 50 mile radius of the college than the number of students who are from that same distance. The college’s students feed back directly into the central Maine economy, considering that radius does not include Portland or Bangor.
“We take a lot of pride in having community impact. It’s written in our mission statement,” Edwards said. “We’re just really, really proud that the community for many of our students is Maine.”
THE NEXT GENERATION
In a small blue notebook with gold dots and a script letter ‘M,’ Meghan Stover tracks the highlights.
Sometimes it’s a memorable encounter with one of her fourth grade students at Winslow Elementary School. Other times, the first-year teacher will note a saying her students latch onto — “swaggy”— being one of them.
“They always come in with a smile on their face,” Stover said. “They are so excited to learn and so excited to see what they do everyday.”
A 22-year-old Bath native, Stover always wanted a career helping others. She initially intended to study psychology at Thomas, but quickly pivoted to education when attending an orientation session at the college’s Center of Innovation for Education through the Peter and Paula Lunder School of Education.
“I knew I wanted to work with kids,” Stover said, “and I wanted to change and shape their minds.”
And that she has, according to Winslow Elementary School Principal Erica Grower. During a recent visit to Stover’s classroom, she demonstrated strong relationships with her students.
“She took every challenge this year with a positive attitude and willingness to do what was needed,” Grower said. “Even when asked to teach both remote students and in-person students at the same time due to some students being out and technology not cooperating, she had a calm demeanor that sent the message to her students that everything would be OK.”
Stover graduated last May with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and a minor in English. While teaching full-time, she is concurrently working on a master’s in education from Thomas.
Teaching jobs usually start popping up in the spring, but the process was delayed due to the pandemic. At first, Stover thought about teaching in southern Maine. She ultimately looked for a position in central Maine after deciding to get her master’s at Thomas.
“Because my senior year was cut so short, I feel like I didn’t get my full time at Thomas, so I wanted to come back and finish,” Stover said. “I didn’t get that closure.”
When the pandemic hit last March, Stover was in the middle of student teaching. She did eight weeks of in-person student teaching at Williams Elementary School in Oakland and finished the year with eight weeks of remote teaching.
Stover’s student teaching experience helped her prepare for her first year as a full-time teacher. Since the start of the school year, Winslow’s schools are in a hybrid model with students split into two cohorts.
Being in central Maine also allows Stover to stay connected with the Thomas community while impacting Winslow. It’s a symbiotic relationship between her past, present and future.
“As a first-year teacher and this being the year that we’re in, my biggest things is to go with the flow, it is what is,” Stover said. “I love to go to campus at night and see my professors and get my degree from Thomas.”
For Troy Worster, staying in the region is just fine.
“It’s nothing against cities,” Worster said, “but I like to be in rural areas with the woods, the trees.”
A Mount Vernon native and Maranacook Community High School graduate, the 22-year-old Worster will remain close to home with the Augusta Police Department. Worster majored in criminal justice.
A soon-to-be full-time police officer, Worster is in the midst of an 18-week program through the Maine Criminal Justice Academy in Vassalboro. Upon completion, he’ll be fully certified.
“Obviously, my No. 1 priority is I want people to be safe; that’s what I got into the field for,” Worster said. “One of the reasons I chose Augusta is that they have such a community-policing basis.”
His interest in the field came from the law enforcement academy at the Capital Area Technical Center while at Maranacook.
Worster interned at the Augusta Police Department during the fall 2019 semester. By getting credit for that internship, Worster graduated a semester early. Hired full-time on a conditional offer in December 2019, Worster started as a patrol officer last spring while waiting for the academy to open back up.
Augusta Police Chief Jared Mills met Worster through the internship partnership with Thomas College.
“He’s a wonderful young man,” Mills said. “When we look for folks, we look for all those really good qualities as far as the way they present themselves up through school, and obviously, the college degree is huge for us.”
In the meantime, Worster completed a 12-week training course. He was initially supposed to start at the academy in August and set to graduate before Christmas. The timeline is delayed over half a year, but Worster’s year-plus of on-the-road-training before the pandemic prepared him well.
Worster understands the attention that comes with working in law enforcement, and looks forward to serving his community.
“I know that it’s a heavily scrutinized job, but at the same time, when you look at it, it’s a job just like anything else,” Worster said. “It’s just the nature of the job that’s making it such a heavily scrutinized position.”
Mills said handling outside pressure is all about maintaining a positive attitude. He believes his department has strong community support, and advises young members to embrace change and improve.
“Things are always changing and evolving, and while certainly this is big and one of the biggest with police reform right now, this is not the first time that it’s happened,” Mills said. “If we embrace the positive changes that can come out of this, it’ll be good for all of us.”
Back in Fairfield, Costa’s experience is not dissimilar from many of her peers.
Harold Alfond Institute for Business Innovation Executive Director Mike Duguay said a disruption in the economy, like the pandemic, often influences increased entrepreneurship. More Thomas College students in the average year started a business.
Like Dylan Veilleux, who launched Tree Free Heat at the beginning of his junior year. Veilleux continues growing his brand of sustainable, hemp stock-based fire starter products and recently teamed up with another entrepreneur to launch Tree Free Bonfires. Veilleux rebranded as Tree Free Brands and each product will be a subsidy of the main brand.
“A lot of the stuff while I was at school was more research and development of the company,” said the 22-year-old Veilleux, a Waterville resident and native of Somersworth, New Hampshire, who is completing his master’s in business administration from Thomas. About a month before his graduation “we started pushing the fire starters. That was the gist of most of 2020.”
Paige Costa, the Readfield native and Maranacook graduate, operates North Star Apothecary with her boyfriend and parents. Her mother, Veronica Costa, does the bookkeeping part-time. Her father, Don Costa and boyfriend, Dempsey Carignan, serve as the caregivers (growers) at the farm. Don Costa started the production end of the business in 2014, but the storefront in Fairfield is his daughter’s project.
Costa did not send out many college applications. As a senior in high school, Costa caught wind of Thomas’s new undergraduate program in Entrepreneurship/Small Businesses and was all about it from the start. Thomas was the only school she applied to.
“When I went to college, I realized that I didn’t want a degree to work for someone else,” Costa said.
Early in her college career, Costa envisioned the storefront in which she works at weekly Tuesday-Saturday from noon-7 p.m. She takes her MBA classes in the morning and scurries to the storefront right after. Her friends and family were surprised when Costa shared her intentions to work in the medical marijuana industry, but those sentiments did not deter her, nor did the fact that there’s plenty of competition.
“I think we’re providing what every business does,” Costa said. “We’re bringing in people to the area, pay local taxes.”
In fact, Costa looks to squash a stigma about working in the medical marijuana industry. Most people know someone who uses medical marijuana to benefit their health.
“What we’re trying to do is enrich the community, not change the community,” she said, “and give something people need in a safe way.”
Getting the business off the ground included a bevy of licenses, applications and inspection. Costa wants to stay in the medical space, not venture into recreational, because she strongly believes in the health benefits medical marijuana provides. She hopes to further expand North Star Apothecary some day.
The rest of Costa’s career may not be centered around medical marijuana. She’d like to open a distillery, maybe own an apple orchard.
“I’m a businesswoman,” she said.