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December 21, 2023

More college graduates are staying in CT. Here’s what they’re doing

COLLAGE BY SHAHRZAD RASEKH / PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE SUBJECTS Clockwise from upper left: Kevin Mejia, An Nguyen, Leana M. Mauricette, Gabe Bitencourt, Zenae Lewis, Victor Ezike and Isabella Montenegro are recent college graduates working in Connecticut.

Just after graduating from the University of Connecticut-Stamford in December 2019, Isabella Montenegro started an intensive graduate certificate program that was supposed to include a two-month stint at a startup in Ireland. But when the COVID-19 pandemic shut everything down, Montenegro had to complete the program remotely from her parents’ home in Stamford. 

“I was planning on that being my little time away from home,” Montenegro said. Still, she said, “Staying in Connecticut all worked out. I’m actually really happy. I also saved a lot of money living at home for school and after college.” 

Montenegro, who now works in fundraising for Stamford’s Mill River Park Collaborative, is among the growing percentage of UConn graduates who are beginning their careers in Connecticut. After declining to 55% in 2021, that percentage rebounded to 66% in 2023. The data comes from a survey of college and university graduates known as the “First Destination Survey,” which assesses professional outcomes for students six months after graduation. 

UConn’s 2023 survey found that students who grew up in Connecticut were even more likely to remain in the state as they kicked off their professional careers: 75% of this year’s employed graduates from Connecticut were working here six months out, the university reported. 

It’s not clear the trend will continue, but recent research has shown that while Gen Z (those born between 1997 and 2012) places value on higher education, its members tend to be wary of rising costs, and many profess a more frugal attitude toward taking on large amounts of debt. 

Montenegro has moved into a well-appointed apartment in downtown Stamford with a roommate. She said it’s a short enough train ride if she wants to spend time with friends in New York City.

“Stamford is expensive, but New York is more expensive,” she said. “Here you don’t have to live in a shoebox with multiple roommates and no laundry.”

Connecticut’s private colleges and universities don’t produce as many graduates who stay local. According to Yale University’s most recent First Destination Survey, only 16.7% of employed graduates in the class of 2022 remained in the state. For Trinity College, that figure was 14.5% in 2021, the most recent year available. Sacred Heart University and the University of Hartford reported just over 40% in their most recent surveys, but for most schools, First Destination geographic data was not available.

Still, according to U.S. Census data analyzed by The Connecticut Mirror, the majority of employed graduates from public and private Connecticut colleges and universities remain in the state within a year of graduating. And the majority of college-bound Connecticut high school graduates still choose to pursue postsecondary education in the state — though their numbers have declined in recent years — according to the U.S. Department of Education. (The state has a program granting automatic college admission to several public universities for high school students who meet certain criteria.)

Campus connections

UConn students can sign up for the career center’s online services as soon as they enroll as freshmen. Based on their course of study, the web-based tool curates internship and job opportunities that match their interests. The career center organizes job fairs, offers one-on-one coaching and hosts alumni on campus for special presentations throughout the year. 

“It’s a constant conversation — how are we driving the economic engine of our state?” said Jim Lowe, executive director of UConn’s Center for Career Development. 

Lowe said of the hundreds of employers who visit UConn campuses each year, about 85% are based in Connecticut. “Storrs gets a little more play from Massachusetts employers, Stamford gets a little more play from New York,” he said.

Students are also introduced to careers in the classroom. Natalia Smirnova, an economics professor at UConn Stamford, frequently invites alumni in economics-related fields to speak to her classes about how they apply the discipline in “real world” careers. (She publishes blogs about her guest speakers here.)

“I kind of feel that they need to get exposed to the real stuff, like what economists do,” Smirnova said. When working alumni have visited her classes — from a business appraiser to a financial researcher and even a White House staffer — she’s had them demonstrate how they use economics skills on the job. It’s not just an alumni panel of speakers, she said, “it’s more targeted to the actual material.”

Students at UConn Stamford can also take advantage of the school’s downtown location, within walking distance or a short commute to many large Connecticut employers. Groups of students in the Digital Media and Design program, for example, have visited media companies like NBC Sports — less than two miles from campus — for tours and to hear about job opportunities.  

Synchrony Financial, a financial services company headquartered about three miles north of UConn’s Stamford campus, opened satellite offices on both the Stamford and Storrs campuses for students interning at the company. On Wednesdays, interns pile into the office to log hours and eat a free lunch together, paid for by the company. 

Located “right in the middle” of the main campus building in Stamford, “it’s full transparency,” said An Nguyen, a senior computer science major who is finishing up a two-year internship with the company. “Whatever we do in there, people outside can see it.”

It’s good marketing for the company, which has a steady stream of interns each term — many of whom, like Nguyen, accept full-time jobs with Synchrony after graduating. Nguyen’s mother relocated the family to Stamford from Vietnam in 2020, and he said the success he's had landing a job will help them all find stability here. “My personal plan, aligned with my family's plan, is to, like, settle in Stamford for the long term,” he said.

Chelsea Erem, in her final semester studying Allied Health Sciences at UConn Waterbury, also found her passion close to home. Currently a fellow with the CT Public Health Fellowship Program, Erem is working with the Waterbury Health Department to investigate rental housing and blight complaints around the city. 

Erem spent most of her childhood in Waterbury and attended public schools, but she said she wasn’t aware of the condition of many of the city’s rental properties because her family owned a home.

“I’m honestly really disappointed and really shocked,” she said.

Once she's completed her undergraduate degree this month, Erem said she plans to pursue a masters in public health or a related field like epidemiology. She’s looking at UConn and other programs in the state, noting their convenience and good value. 

“I definitely see myself in Connecticut for at least the next five years,” she said. As for her friends and classmates, “Yeah, we’re definitely all staying here,” she said.

Retaining talent

In 2020, Connecticut launched a fellowship program aimed at “high-achieving” recent college graduates called the Governor’s Innovation Fellowship. Administered by CTNext, a quasi-public agency supporting startups in the state, the year-long fellowship places participants in jobs with prominent Connecticut employers and hosts workshops and social events for each cohort of young professionals throughout the year. 

At its outset, the program’s stated goal was to retain the state’s top talent — a critical component of economic development, officials said at the time. So far, 84 young professionals have been selected for the GIF program, currently in its third year.

Zenae Lewis, a 2023-24 fellow who pursued health care studies and psychology as an undergraduate at Southern Connecticut State University, is now working in residential counseling at Hartford Health Care while studying for an advanced degree. She said transitioning into the professional world after college was challenging, but the fellowship has made her feel “like I have someone I can lean on.”

Connecticut “is a great place to start out in my field and get to know people,” Lewis said. 

Gabe Bitencourt, a former GIF fellow, grew up in Bridgeport and majored in computer engineering at Sacred Heart University. He now works full time for the New Milford startup where he interned in college, Target Arm, which designs autonomous launch and recovery systems for drones — and he has his own DJ business on the side. 

Bitencourt said his family was wary of him working at a startup at first, but the company has grown and he’s stuck it out.

“They trusted that I trusted the company and its potential, so they backed me up, and they’ve been fully on board,” he said.

Past fellow Leana M. Mauricette, who grew up in East Hartford, is pursuing an MBA in sustainability at Bard College. The hybrid program allows Mauricette to continue working at GreenWave, a New Haven nonprofit that supports regenerative ocean farming, where she started during her fellowship after graduating from Southern.

“I know I definitely want to stay in Connecticut. I’m very intertwined with the sustainability community here,” Mauricette said.

Victor Ezike stayed on at 12-15 Molecular Diagnostics after interning there as a graduate student at the University of New Haven and working there during his GIF fellowship. The biotechnology company develops testing for pathogens in fluids, including an inexpensive method to test water quality for so-called “forever chemicals” known as PFAS.

Ezike, who moved to the U.S. from West Africa for graduate school in 2019, said he’s found his calling in the lab.

“I feel like I will get a lot of support from Connecticut to establish my dreams, so I’m going to be here for a long time — for the longest of times,” he said.

CTNext also runs a program called The Talent Bridge, which provides funding for startup companies to hire interns. Kevin Mejia, a Talent Bridge intern who grew up in Stratford, thought he’d stay in New York City after attending Iona University, but Connecticut lured him back.

Mejia wanted to work at a startup, so he searched on the internet for Fairfield County companies hiring interns — and quickly landed a position with SedMed. The company’s proprietary product helps people with mobility challenges to get on and off the toilet more easily. Mejia loved it right away.

He recalls one day when a young woman with ALS came in with her brother to try out the device. As she observed the demonstration, her excitement was palpable, Mejia said. It was clear SedMed's product would provide her with a level of independence she thought she’d lost, Mejia said.

“From that moment on I stopped looking at SedMed as my first internship or my first job, I started looking at it as my responsibility,” he said. "I have something to do for a greater cause.”

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