When Breeanna Zoidis of Casco headed off to college, she wanted to get out of Maine. So she enrolled at Elmira College in New York, where tuition, room and board are more than $51,000 a year. Even with a scholarship, two years there put her $40,000 in debt.

Today, the older and wiser 24-year-old Zoidis is at Southern Maine Community College, closer to home and on the brink of getting her associate in applied science degree in fire science. Then she plans to roll right into her next SMCC program, an AAS degree in emergency medical services/paramedicine.

She loves the program, but the finances make sense, too, she said.

“I’m already $40,000 in debt and I only went (to Elmira) for two years. Here, I go for free. Actually, I get paid to go here,” she said with a laugh, explaining that she gets free room and board, plus a per-diem payment, as part of a live-in program that places SMCC fire science students in local firehouses. She lives at the Kennebunk fire station while attending SMCC.

Her experience has made her an advocate for community colleges, she said.

“I preach to people: If you are going to a college, start at a community college,” Zoidis said. “If you don’t especially know what you want to do, then do liberal studies and figure out if you like it or not” without spending tens of thousands in tuition at a four-year university.

“It’s much more economically sane.”

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