When I graduated with my post-secondary degree,
I was ready to leave West Virginia.
I’ve lived in this state my whole life. I grew up playing in the friendly hills of Charleston and going on school fieldtrips to Blennerhassett Island and the Blenko Glass factory. For six years, I geared up in gold and blue and walked into the student section of Milan Puskar Stadium amidst that flattening roar of 60,000 Mountaineers. I’ve spent time tasting varieties of moonshine and sweet, local wine while visiting family in the hills outside of Beckley and the inviting town of Lewisburg. Lots of my life has been spent hiking those spirited Appalachian Mountains, camping in the tranquil hills at Bluestone State Park, and rafting through that miraculous piece of heaven we call Fayette County. I’ve always loved this state. But I was ready to leave.
We all know the issues: brain drain, dwindling tax revenue, a poor economy, poor health, a poor national reputation, a dip in coal jobs, a need for innovation… In our state, these are all things you’ll hear discussed on – at the very least – a monthly basis. We keep having these conversations because we love our state and we want to talk about the issues with the hope that we’ll find the solution.
But when these conversations permeate life in the state,
it subtly and consistently incites an attitude
that we don’t measure up.
It gives the impression that this isn’t a place you would want to be, especially as a young person.
In college, the idea that we are lesser got into my psyche. It didn’t make me dislike our state; quite the opposite. It made me think ‘I need to get out there and experience a place where people thrive, then I can take what I learn and bring it back here.’ Upon finishing our post-secondary degrees, my now-husband and I decided we wanted to move out of state. We’d spend a couple of years here gaining some experience and then we’d make our exit. However, after two years of becoming immersed as young professionals in West Virginia, we’ve made a big decision: we’re not moving.
Sure, we do want to broaden our horizons and expand our perspectives. We want to meet new people and become immersed in cultures different from our own so that we can learn from others and grow. How lucky are we then to live in a place with such a low cost of living that we’re able to save and travel? We made a decision (a leap of faith, really) that instead of moving, we’d take a trip. We’re happy, excited, scared, and mostly thrilled to say that for 2 1/2 months, we’re heading across the country to see the beautiful expanse of this great nation. We’re on an adventure – a loop northward out to Oregon, down the Pacific Coast, and southward back to these cozy Appalachian Mountains that are our home. It’s a risky and maybe outlandish venture, but it’s something we feel we need.
We need to get out and experience more, but we need to go with our hearts on this one and make our home in West Virginia.
The decision to stay came from one extremely influential circumstance:
West Virginia needs us. This state needs each of us, and that’s not because we possess some remarkable level of charisma and know-how to tackle the issues and improve this state. West Virginia just needs people, period. It needs young people. It needs people who care. It needs people who see it for what it is: one of the most beautiful places in the world, with some of the most beautiful people in the world. People who are so quick to help their neighbors when crises strike. People who sustain such rich cultural values, history, music, art, and traditions. People who can truly thrive, despite what the world throws at them.
In the role I’ve had for the past two years at Inspire West Virginia, I’ve spoken with hundreds of young people across this state. And what I’ve learned is this: we are ready. We’re ready to make the improvements our state needs. We have expectations and we have the passion and creativity to make things happen. Most importantly, we have the deep-rooted love for our home that’s so indispensably necessary to keep going when things get tough, when others give up, when your footing and your direction are both unclear.
When the 2016 floods happened, I read someone’s post that said: ‘Get out here and help. If you physically can’t help, give. If you can’t give, coordinate. Whatever it is that you do, do it now to help.’ I look around at our state of affairs now and I know what I can do to help. I can stay. I can invest. I can stand up and be a part of the solution, rather than leaving and hoping the always-dwindling population left behind can somehow generate and amplify the dream that I have for West Virginia’s potential.
Don’t get me wrong here – I don’t blame people who want to experience more of the world. I know that it is hard to find jobs here, that some people have dreams to achieve and industries to tackle in another place, and that some people just fall in love with cities and towns elsewhere. This article isn’t meant to guide or judge others’ choices.
Rather, it’s a call to recognize that if the reason we leave is because West Virginia can’t measure up, then it just never will.
If we leave because the economy is bad, then we take our economic investment with us. If we leave because there are no young people here, we subtract another young person from the population. The solutions to the issues we face aren’t necessarily outside factors. They live in us. They live in the people who cherish these mountains and who call this place home with unconditional love. We West Virginians are the ones who have the dedication and the devotion to truly make a difference here, even if it simply means living here, shopping here, eating here, investing ourselves in this place.
My husband and I are staying. We’re staying for West Virginia’s sake and for our own. And while we’re excited to settle down here and invest in this great place, we’re also happy to be learning more about our country and about ourselves. If you’re interested in keeping up with our travels, keep reading this blog series! We post frequently to show what we’re up to and what amazing slice of the nation we’re currently taking in. We love meeting new people, seeing new things, and immersing ourselves in cultures outside of our own. But I can tell you that when we come back in mid-October and we see that “Welcome to West Virginia, Wild and Wonderful” sign amidst the brilliant autumn leaves under that dark and dusty sky, I will have a teardrop in my eye. I’ll be happy to be back in these almost heaven mountains that we call home.