The Next Stage: We caught up with eight students from one high school music department to see where life took them

By Sarah Earle

Cast and crew members from the 2019 spring musical gather in the music room at Merrimack Valley High School

Part Two of a Two-Part Series

The music room at Merrimack Valley High School looms large in the memory of students who found themselves there in a certain era. Cluttered with instrument cases and the flotsam of frenzied adolescence, its cinder-block walls tattooed with inside jokes and team-building projects (a web of yarn, a poster proclaiming “bagels are the enemy”), it was the one room in the high school that was almost never empty — or quiet. In between formal classes and rehearsals, students wandered in to unwind or let off steam. Someone was always strumming a guitar or picking out a melody on the aging piano.  

My daughter was among the students who frequented that room during her high school career, and she helped me catch up with seven other young people who shared that space. They’re by no means a scientific sampling, but their stories provide some insights into one of the critical questions facing our state — a question with implications for everyone from school leaders to business owners to taxpayers: What factors determine whether young people ultimately leave New Hampshire or whether they stay here for good? 

‘New Hampshire’s not out of the running.’

Matthew McDonald

Rather than causing Matthew McDonald to second guess his career aspirations, the COVID-19 pandemic helped reaffirm them.

“When you hear about healthcare workers who died from the virus, when you hear about nurses who didn’t have any PPE and decided to treat their patients anyway … it makes me want to embody and emulate that attitude,” said McDonald, a second-year nursing student at the University of New England in Biddeford, Maine. “I want to be part of that.”

McDonald started taking health science classes at Concord Regional Technical Center during his junior year at Merrimack Valley and immediately knew he’d found his calling. He learned about UNE at a college fair at Merrimack Valley and chose the school primarily for its nursing program.

A clarinet player who could be found in the music room when he wasn’t at CRTC, McDonald isn’t sure where he’ll end up just yet. Partly inspired by healthcare workers who have answered the call during the pandemic, he’s strongly considering becoming a travel nurse. 

“There’s a lot that I want to experience, and I feel like the only way to do that is to travel,” he said. 

Eventually, McDonald wants to become a nurse practitioner, and he figures that seeing other parts of the country and maybe the world will help him determine where he wants to put down roots. Because of the nursing shortage, he expects to have plenty of options. 

“New Hampshire isn’t out of the running,” he said.

A 2019 graduate whose parents are both from New Hampshire, McDonald grew up in Boscawen and likes the bucolic feel of his hometown. He’s also had some experience working in healthcare here, as a food service employee at Concord Hospital and a nursing assistant at Merrimack County Nursing Home. 

“In New Hampshire, we definitely do need more people, especially in nursing home care,” he said. “I have seen the critical need for not just nursing assistants, but nurses, doctors … there’s such a need for healthcare workers at every level.”

‘It’s a pretty little state with a little bit of everything.’

At jazz band concerts in the school auditorium, Kathryn Ingerson was the sort of improv soloist who had audience members craning their necks and consulting the photocopied programs they’d been handed on the way in. Those saxophone skills earned her a music scholarship at the University of New Hampshire, and the scholarship was a key reason she decided to stay in state. 

A 2019 Merrimack Valley graduate who comes from a tight-knit Loudon family, Ingerson doesn’t necessarily plan to stick around, though. It’s not that she doesn’t love New Hampshire: “I’d like to stay in NH because that’s where my parents are and NH has always been home to me,” she said. “It’s a really pretty state with a little bit of everything.”

Like many young people, however, Ingerson plans to go where her career aspirations take her.

“I want to pursue classical saxophone, and the best schools and opportunities for that are out West,” said Ingerson, who’s currently majoring in Music Education at UNH. “Unless I don’t have a successful grad school audition, I’m expecting to head west and likely stay there after school.” 

‘NH is a place to settle.’

Alex Hartofelis

Alex Hartofelis knows the life-changing power of a teacher. He was sitting in study hall one day during his junior year in high school when the school music director, Maggie Oswald, appeared in the doorway and recruited him for no apparent reason. “You,” she said, looking straight at him. “We have chorus. Let’s go.” 

Hartofelis had played clarinet in the high school band but wasn’t much of a music kid until that moment. He not only joined chorus, but within a short time became a member of vocal ensemble and jazz band, landed a role as the tin man in the school production of The Wizard of Oz, and participated in selective regional and state music events. A 2018 graduate, he got into the Hartt School at the University of Hartford based on his vocal audition and is now studying music education with a voice emphasis. 

Because music teacher positions are relatively scarce, Hartofelis says where he ends up will depend on where he can find work. “I don’t really have a place in mind where I want to settle,” he said. “I could end up in Massachusetts, I could end up in Florida, I could end up anywhere.”

Ideally, though, Hartofelis would like to land somewhere urban and progressive. Before heading to Hartford, he lived his whole life in Penacook and spent his entire school career at Merrimack Valley. When he came out as gay, people in his home and school community were accepting enough, but living as a gay person in Hartford feels more comfortable. He also likes the energy and personality of the city. 

“I’ve been exposed to the possibilities. It really expanded my understanding of what was possible,” Hartofelis said. “It’s nice to feel encapsulated by my beliefs.”

In spite of his warm memories of the music department, Hartofelis thinks it’s unlikely he’ll find himself back here teaching. Still, he knows the state has a certain magnetic pull, especially for young people with roots here who are ready to start a family of their own. 

“New Hampshire is a place to settle,” he said. 

‘I’m just willing to go wherever I can get hired.’

Brianna Hartofelis has fond memories of the Penacook suburb where she grew up, a neighborhood filled with familiar faces and known for its block parties and community yard sales. She thrived at Merrimack Valley High School, playing flute in the band, singing in chorus and vocal ensemble, cheering for football, playing major roles in the spring musical, and participating in National Honor Society. Even a bout with thyroid cancer her senior year barely slowed her down.

“I loved all of it. Friday night football, concerts, cheerleading …” said Hartofelis, who graduated in 2019.

Hartofelis has a new love now, though. Make that two new loves: New York City and a boyfriend she met there. And she doubts she’ll return to her roots. 

Brianna Hartofelis

“Coming to New York was definitely where I found myself,” said Hartofelis, who just completed her sophomore year at the New York School of Interior Design on the upper East Side of Manhattan. 

Growing up, Hartofelis loved to draw and found that she had a knack for geometry and drafting, which she got her first taste of in a middle school woodworking class. She also loved cleaning and making the house look just so. 

“My mom was like, ‘what the heck?’” Hartofelis recalled.

Merrimack Valley is one of many high schools that require students to complete a senior project, an assignment seniors often use to explore a career interest. The summer before her senior year, Hartofelis landed an internship at an interior design firm in Massachusetts for her senior project. 

That experience helped her get into the New York School of Interior Design, the top school in the field.

New York was intimidating at first, but Hartofelis quickly made friends and learned her way around. After studying from home last fall due to the pandemic and a round of follow-up surgery and chemo, she persuaded her parents to let her go back for the spring semester. She now lives in an apartment with a group of friends and recently met a love interest who works in the business district.

Now that she’s shown herself what she’s capable of, Hartofelis feels like she’s ready for anything. If all goes well with her boyfriend, she expects she’ll stick around New York, at least for a while. She’d also love to work in Europe or explore other cities. 

 “I’m just willing to go wherever I can get hired,” she said.

Eventually, Hartofelis wants to have a family and figures she’ll settle down somewhere outside the city when the time comes — maybe somewhere in Massachusetts or Connecticut. 

The neighborhood she loved so much growing up, however, feels a little too sleepy for her now. 

‘I definitely have always wanted to stay in New Hampshire.’

Madison Bourque plans to stay put. Period. A 2020 graduate of Merrimack Valley High School and member of the school chorus, she can trace her roots back at least four generations in New Hampshire. She also likes what the state has to offer: mountains, lakes, distinct seasons, and a quiet way of life. 

“I definitely have always wanted to stay in New Hampshire my entire life, and I still want to,” said Bourque, who moved with her family to Penacook from Manchester when she was 11.

She has practical reasons for sticking around, too. An aspiring art director, Bourque is pursuing her associates degree in visual arts at NHTI-Concord’s Community College. She plans to transfer to Plymouth State or Keene State College, where most of her credits will count towards a bachelor’s degree in graphic design. 

Not only is she saving money on tuition by staying in state, Bourque is also able to commute to the class she takes on campus.

She’s optimistic about the job market here in New Hampshire: Job searches in the graphic design field turn up plenty of options. But even if work in her field proves elusive, she doesn’t plan to pack her bags. 

“I’d rather work somewhere in New Hampshire even if it’s slightly outside of what I’m looking for,” Bourque said. 

‘Times are a little rough right now.’

Natalie Nolin

One day, Natalie Nolin wants to chase tornados. But right now, she’s feeling a little blown off course. 

“I’m planning to just sort of take it easy for a little while, as the times are a little rough right now,” said Nolin, who grew up in Loudon and played trombone in band and jazz band until the pandemic, when she gave it up. 

Finishing her high school career during the pandemic has made Nolin both eager to see something new and anxious about changing her routine. She likes New Hampshire but isn’t sure she wants to stay here. “I feel like it would be good to go to new places and try new things,” she said. “At the same time, I don’t really want to be near people. … It’s just really conflicting.” 

Nolin isn’t alone in her uncertainty. Historically, up to 50% of young people start college without declaring a major. About a third of college students change their major within the first year, according to recent statistics. This year, about 20% fewer high school students than usual aren’t planning to go on to college.

Read: ‘Gift to the Class of 2021’ provides free community college classes to all graduating seniors

Eventually, Nolin hopes to go to a good meteorology school in Oklahoma or Nebraska. Soon, she plans to start taking some classes, probably at NHTI. “I’m just going to try to take as many basic classes as I can,” she said. “And then I’ll figure it out from there.”

‘I just decided I wanted a change.’

Hannah Segien

Many students need a nudge in the right direction as they begin to plan their futures. Hannah Segien was not one of those students. A first generation college student, Segien was one of just two students in MV’s class of 2019 to go into engineering (as far as she knows) and the only female student to do so. 

“I just kind of landed on it on my own,” said Segien, who just finished her sophomore year at the University of Connecticut, where she’s majoring in management and engineering for manufacturing, and will spend her summer as an intern at Raytheon Technologies’ Pratt & Whitney branch.

Segien, who played the trumpet in band and jazz band, chose UConn because Connecticut is known as an engineering hub. She also liked how different it was from where she grew up, on a dirt road in Loudon. “I just decided I wanted a change,” she said. “I can’t remember if it was a revelation or just a gradual thing.”

Diversity abounds at UConn, which has a high percentage of international students, and Segien has particularly enjoyed getting to know students from other cultures. 

She’s also immersed herself in college life, serving as vice president of two engineering societies, working as a mentor, tutor, and tour guide on campus, and participating in outreach programs to high schools and middle schools. Through those roles, she hopes to help more young women find a passion for engineering. 

“This is an intimidating field, and women don’t necessarily have the resources or support,” she said. 

Segien would love to work overseas after graduation, but staying in the Connecticut area is also appealing. New Hampshire, she said, is not. 

While many young people feel drawn back to the state by family, the pull went the other direction in Segien’s case. Her father followed her to Connecticut, and she lives there with him in between semesters. 

‘I’m not against staying in New Hampshire.’

Some decisions are slow and deliberate, and others just kind of happen. 

Laura Earle

In November of her senior year, Laura Earle participated in a College Bound/I Applied day at Merrimack Valley, in which students were invited to apply to New Hampshire colleges for free. The form required her to choose a major, so she checked the box for economics on a whim. She’s still not sure why.

Always a math enthusiast (her parents used to keep her occupied on long road trips by challenging her to see how high she could count) Earle found her social network in the music department and for a while planned to become a music teacher. A personal finance class her senior year piqued her interest in accounting. 

But economics? “I had every intention of switching,” said Earle, a 2020 graduate who grew up in Loudon and played trombone in band and jazz band and sang in chorus and vocal ensemble. 

Not long after that college event, the world got much smaller. Earle had to settle on a college while completing her senior year from her bedroom. The University of New Hampshire offered her a generous scholarship, and staying close to home amid so much uncertainty felt right. 

Her fall semester at UNH, Earle took a microeconomics class. She loved how it combined elements of math and social science and discovered she was good at it. She’s now committed to a major in analytical economics with a minor in political science.

Knowing how unpredictable life can be, Earle isn’t making any big bets about where she’ll end up. She likes the overall political climate and the weather here in New England and wants to be near family. 

“I feel pretty strongly that I want to be in New England,” she said. “I’m not against staying in New Hampshire but I’m not set on staying in New Hampshire either.”

Read Part One: Follow your dreams (but please come back): Why young people leave the Granite State and what workforce experts are doing to keep them here