Faculty and Teaching Staff Stories

Paul Lagace

Photo of Paul LagaceProfessor of Aeronautics and Astronautics and of Engineering Systems

I was born and grew up in Lewiston, Maine, a city (by Maine standards) of about 40,000 people in central Maine on the Androscoggin River. Lewiston grew as a mill town in the latter half of the 1800’s and earlier part of the 1900’s, with mills using the energy provided by the flow of the river to help in the production of shoes, textiles, and bricks. The city drew many French-Canadien immigrants from various parts of Quebec as they sought work in the mills during that time period. Three of my four grandparents were born in Canada and were part of this wave of people to work in the mills or to work other support jobs. It is primarily a blue-collar town. When I first attended school, both French and English were spoken in the schools, although some of the older people in town in that era never did have any ability in English, such as my great-grandmother. Lewiston was hurt significantly in the latter 1990’s when many of these industries moved south and offshore, in search of less expensive labor, with most of the job-supplying mills being shut.

I was fortunate to be both a second-generation American and to grow up in the 1960’s when college education was becoming more commonplace within America. Those factors combined with a very strong family commitment to see their children (and grandchildren) go beyond what was available in this mill city on the Androscoggin. My family was always committed to a strong education as well as to fundamental values that we all shared. One of these dealt with excellence. No matter what one did, it should always be done with excellence and with a pride in delivering that excellence. To this day, I always recall the quote that was painted on my father’s van – “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.” I have worked to practice that throughout my life, and it has served me well.

My father was a self-employed painter and paperhanger who had a couple other employees during his career, depending upon the demands within the community. That would, of course, depend upon how the community was faring financially and how others could afford such work. My mother was primarily an at-home mom, tracking the financial details of my father’s work, and taking similar type part-time jobs when the need called and the opportunity was there. I was also blessed to do quite well in school and to be identified by the nuns who taught me in grammar school as someone who would go farther. My parents were committed to get me out of the somewhat limiting culture within Lewiston and worked to garner the money, along with a bit of a scholarship, so that I could attend a Jesuit preparatory high school in the “big” city (70,000 people!) of Portland, 30 miles to the south of Lewiston.

During my time in grammar school, I had spent time exploring the world by reading the “World Book Encyclopedia” for which my parents had saved money in order to purchase for my brother and me. But my attendance at Cheverus High School opened up even more of the world to me. There were a new group of friends whom I came to know, and the Jesuits were a community who taught you to think, to question, and to always explore. That opened my mind and further grew my desire for education. As time progressed, I explored possible colleges through visits to campuses for competitions for the debate team of which I was a member, and listened to many people talk about possibilities. But I found my true desire in reading a book about colleges that my parents gave me as a gift for my birthday one summer. My eyes had been further opened by the space program, and my tie to math and science drew me to that place called M.I.T. I was pushed to pursue other paths -- schools of liberal arts, schools run by religious orders, and similar items. However, my desire kept me focused on M.I.T. And when that acceptance letter arrived in the fall of my senior year, I was filled with joy.

That following fall, I was somewhat overwhelmed when my parents dropped me off on the campus in Cambridge and I saw this school for the first time. My eyes had been opened in the past, but nothing as they were during my time first as a student here and then beyond. The diversity of people, ideas, connections to places, and all else that this campus presented gave me so much to explore. However, this also presented challenges as there was so much that could potentially lead to going down paths that could cause a break from my past and roots back home. Yet there were two things that helped me maintain my strong connection to where I had been while still exploring and discovering. One was the strong set of fundamental values of my family and the commitment always shared amongst that family. The other was the array of good and kind people who were teachers and mentors as I grew here. And these teachers were not just in classrooms -- they were all around the community of this campus. They included fellow students, people with whom I worked in the dining hall and other places, housemasters, and many more. And through that I was able to broaden my world, yet still maintain my ties to the world from which I came.

And those items continue to serve me well to this day as I continue my growth as a faculty member, explore and make connections around the world, and work to help and teach others, yet also continuing to discover and to learn from this and other communities including from those new students who arrive each year, as well as to be strong with my family back home. It is through this continuing process, particularly in working with and helping others which is so important to me, that I believe I thank and pay back those who helped me achieve as a First Generation Student.