Top of the Class: ‘I always knew I wanted to stay’

  • Craig Paggi, who graduated as Pittsfield's valedictorian in 2011, returned to his hometown to start his career after finishing school. He’s seen here in front of his home, which he recently purchased from his great-uncle, holding his new puppy, Bella. NICK STOICO / Monitor staff

For the Monitor
Published: 8/31/2019 2:58:08 PM

Craig Paggi moved back home in July, and he couldn’t be happier about it.

Home is 100 acres of land in Pittsfield where Paggi’s parents still live. At 26, Paggi said he always wanted to stay close to his parents and the woods where he grew up. After a brief stint in Manchester, he saved up enough money to buy his great uncle’s house, right next door to his parents.

Paggi, the valedictorian for Pittsfield’s Class of 2011, has lived most of his life in New Hampshire. Like many of the area’s recent valedictorians the Monitor interviewed, he chose a career in STEM. He currently works as a senior mechanical engineer at Elbit Systems of America, based in Merrimack.

Unlike most of the valedictorians, he’s returned to the Granite State.

“I’d say about half my peers wanted to get out (of New Hampshire),” Paggi said, referring to his high school class. “They wanted to experience something different, but I felt like I got that out of my system by going to UNH.”

Only four of the 19 valedictorians the Monitor interviewed for the “Top of the Class” series still live in the state. The series is a local look at where the area’s valedictorians wound up, following a more expansive project by the Boston Globe at the start of the year called the “Valedictorian Project.”

For those who left, work was a huge factor: Many said there were few opportunities in New Hampshire in the field they wanted. The reasoning was similar if valedictorians pursued graduate school – most said the state’s colleges did not provide the research opportunities other schools could provide.

A perceived lack of professional and cultural opportunities, loneliness and a lack of affordable housing were seen as big barriers to millennials last year after a survey from Stay Work Play New Hampshire showed 30% of young people – defined in the survey as ages 20 to 40 – would consider moving out of the state in the next two years.

Paggi has heard all of that before. But he disagrees there aren’t options for New Hampshire natives looking to stay close to their roots.

‘I knew what I was passionate about’

Paggi’s childhood was a mix of dirt bikes, piano lessons, saxophone playing and science.

He knew engineering would be his path by 10th grade, when he took a physical science class with teacher Kiza Armour that lit a fire in him. A competition to build a car powered by a DC motor stood out in particular.

“I knew what I was passionate about, and having that physical science opportunity in high school really set my career path for me,” he said.

Paggi said his parents would have supported him no matter what he did. But as a first-generation college student from a blue-collar family – his father manages paper distribution for the Union Leader and his mother is currently disabled – he knew he would be paying for school on his own.

That led him to the University of New Hampshire in Durham, where he studied mechanical engineering for four years.

Paggi said he would not have gone there if not for the school’s engineering program. But the financial aid didn’t hurt either: he received the school’s Presidential Scholarship, awarded to students based on their class rank, college prep, test scores and achievements, along with financial aid; he also received Pittsfield’s Foss Family trust scholarship and various other scholarships.

As a valedictorian, Paggi said there was a lot of pressure to go to a more prestigious school. He remembers his fellow students at St. Paul’s summer Advanced Studies Program gunning for Ivy Leagues.

But Paggi knew UNH was the best fit for him. He sometimes tells his story to Pittsfield Middle/High School students and encourages them to consider options that work best for them.

“I feel like that’s one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned and I’m a big advocate for when I talk to high school students. Sometimes I’ll go back to Pittsfield and say ‘you don’t have to feel pressure to go to these expensive schools, these private schools,’ ” Paggi said.

He works alongside engineers who went to expensive private schools.

“The difference is that I’m not $200,000 in debt,” he said.

‘I want to be able to take care of them’

Paggi said he knew he wanted to stay close to home to take care of his family someday.

“When they’re older, I want to be able to take care of them,” he said. “I always knew I wanted to stay.”

But Paggi’s connection to New Hampshire is deeper, he said, and its proximity to Boston, its beautiful mountains and accessible ocean made it an ideal choice to stay.

That’s not to say he hasn’t been outside the state: Paggi said he’s traveled cross-country for fun, and to Italy, France, Spain, Germany and England for work.

He’s found plenty of advancement in New Hampshire, too, earning a master’s degree at night through UMass Lowell, paid for by his former employer, BAE.

He said he’s happy where he is – and has his roots to thank for it.

“My parents definitely gave me a lot of help and support,” Paggi said. “They pushed me and that’s definitely a huge part of it. And even though Pittsfield was a small school and may not have had a lot of opportunities, they motivated me and pushed me to where I wanted to be.”

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