By ANDREA LANNOM
BECKLEY, W.Va. — Kathryn Ryan and her husband Andy initially planned to leave West Virginia. They wanted to broaden their horizons and gain new experiences.
They are not alone.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau estimates, West Virginia lost 1.2 percent of its population, declining from 1.85 million in 2010 to about 1.83 million in 2016. As the state’s population continues to slide, young, educated and career-minded individuals are struggling with a decision to stay put near family and friends or go where opportunity leads. The Ryans’ story is not atypical.
Kathryn, 26, has her master’s in public health. A program coordinator for Inspire West Virginia, she works with younger people across the state to get them civically engaged. Andy, 28, is an attorney. Both are from Charleston.
“We thought we needed to look for jobs out of state. It broke my heart to think about it,” Kathryn said. “I was working with so many great organizations that were really doing such great things in our state. I hated the idea of leaving that and leaving the connections I had built up from working in the nonprofit realm in West Virginia.”
Although the couple knew they wanted to stay in West Virginia longterm, they still felt a sense of wanderlust and decided instead of moving to another state, they would take a cross-country trip. They saved up, packed up supplies including a tent, sleeping bags and a tabletop grill and headed west in their Volkswagen Jetta. They followed the map to Oregon and then down the California coast. They visited friends and toured national parks before turning the car around and coming home in October.
“The purpose of this trip is my husband and I lived in West Virginia our entire lives,” Kathryn said. “That was why we wanted to move out of state. We wanted to gain experiences and get outside of our comfort zones.
“When we decided we wanted to stay, we still wanted to get out of our comfort zones and learn new things,” Kathryn said. “This is the only time we could take a big risk like this. We started planning, saving and moved in with my mother-in-law to save on rent before taking the 80-day trip across the country.”
The two now live with Andy’s mother in Charleston while they look for jobs.
“In West Virginia, it’s very unique first of all in the sense of statewide community,” she said. “I met a lot of people who are proud of their state but nothing like the pride West Virginians hold for our state and region. I think that’s because we as West Virginians have loyalty to our state.
“I saw a lot of friends who now live out of state,” Kathryn said. “They still consider themselves West Virginians. I like being in a community like that. You can reach out to someone halfway across the state and it’s reasonable to expect to hear back. We see each other as family. I love being in a place like that.”
Like Kathryn, many others interviewed for this story mentioned close-knit communities as one reason they love the Mountain State. Many other people said they choose to stay to make a difference in their communities.
Natalie Roper, 26, who leads Generation West Virginia, said she and her husband are West Virginians by choice, moving in from Virginia. Her husband, Kemper Steffe, also 26, attends the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine and is doing his surgery rotations in Charleston.
“We hadn’t heard a lot about the state and that says something that we don’t tell enough of our story,” Roper said.
“I remember wondering about jobs,” Roper said. “Then, having this opportunity become available was just amazing.
“We were blown away by the vibrancy in the communities and the fun things to do and how quickly we felt at home in Lewisburg, then in Charleston and just in the state as a whole,” Roper said. “I was struck by how quickly we felt like family here.”
She said one of the many qualities that keeps her in West Virginia is being part of something and feeling like she can work with a team to make the state better for everyone.
“Millennials are impact-driven population,” she said. “They are choosing places to be part of to define places for the future and they are eager to have a seat at the table and be part of solving complex problems and making impacts you can see.
“I think West Virginia offers an amazing opportunity for people driven to make an impact.”
Paying the bills
Like Roper, Brittany Means Carowick also wants to make West Virginia a better place. However, for Carowick, staying in the state hasn’t been easy.
When graduate school took her away from West Virginia, she knew she wanted to move back. The 29-year-old Charleston resident said she never imagined living anywhere else.
She worries about paying off student loan debt. After receiving her bachelor’s degree, Carowick earned a degree in Appalachian studies in 2015 at Appalachian State University in North Carolina. She paid out-of-state tuition, then qualified for an in-state scholarship. Now, she’s about $80,000 in debt.
This year, WalletHub, an organization owned by Evolution Finance, Inc. based in Washington D.C., ranked West Virginia fourth overall in states with the most student debt. According to its report, student loans make up the largest piece of household debt – except for mortgages – in America.
Since moving back to Charleston, Carowick has had several jobs. Job hunting, she says, is an ongoing battle. She spent almost a year at Create West Virginia. In the past year, she has been a cab driver and an Autopods driver – electric pedicab taxi rides – which she did until it got too cold. She then worked at Frontier in the Charleston Town Center Mall.
She later was awarded a fellowship in her line of work – an Appalachian Transition Fellowship through Highland Research and Development.
“The nice part of it is the fellowship is about leadership development,” she said. “We travel once a month all over Appalachia. … Hopefully, the connections I’ve made will help in my job search.
“It’s designed to help young leaders in communities in Appalachia that are struggling economically,” she said. “It helps develop young leaders and also helps organizations that don’t have a lot of capacity to employee people to make a difference. It also is designed to help communities take that next step.”
Her husband, also 29, works as a file clerk at Dinsmore & Shohl, a lawfirm in Charleston.
Even though she said her husband has a stable job, finding stable employment is something she worries about for the future, especially when her fellowship ends this year.
She said she’s glad she moved back to West Virginia and hopes to find a future here.
“It’s complicated,” she said. “I am still glad I moved back for sure, especially for jobs where I get to travel throughout the state. This state is so beautiful and it’s nice to be able to see that.
“At the same time, now that I am looking for work, I’m nervous because of how much of a hard time I had the first time around when my contract expired,” she said. “The good thing is Joe does have work but it does limit the jobs I can look for. I know I want to be in West Virginia but now I’ll be looking in Kanawha County or possibly commuting up to an hour. It’s financially hard to do anything more than that.”
When Dustin Blankenship, 28, moved to Texas to begin his career at a small startup, he didn’t expect – although he had hoped – to move back to West Virginia about a year later.
Now calling Morgantown home, Blankenship said he’s experienced some culture shock in moving from a city with about 2 million people to a city with a metro population of about 137,000. Still, he is happy with his decision.
Blankenship grew up in Mingo County. He graduated from Concord University with a degree in history and pre-law in 2011. He got his law degree in 2014 at West Virginia University. During his second year in law school, he realized he he didn’t have a desire to practice law day-to-day but instead wanted to work in the nonprofit sector.
He stayed at West Virginia University for an extra year to obtain a master’s degree in public administration. During that time, he taught at West Virginia Junior College’s paralegal studies program. He continued teaching as an online adjunct even after he moved from the state.
After getting his master’s, Blankenship packed his bags and moved to Austin, Texas. He worked for almost a year at a startup called Ice.com, an online jewelry vendor. He enjoyed the job and the convenience of being close enough that he could walk to work.
He moved back to West Virginia for a job at WVU. He worked through July when his grandfather passed away. Shortly following, he started experiencing major health problems.
He still serves as a legal/general studies teacher at West Virginia Junior College and is hoping to break into the political sector. He also hopes to take the bar exam next year.
“I want to stay in the area longterm,” Blankenship said. “If anything, I would like to work in D.C. and live in the Eastern Panhandle. (West Virginia) is a unique area and a nice place to live.”
Jenni Canterbury, a 38-year-old who works as a public relations manager at New River Community and Technical College in Beckley, said when she left West Virginia in 2001 to go to graduate school in Boston, she never planned to return.
“After I finished my program of study, I had two job offers, one in Boston and one in West Virginia,” she said. “Because the cost of living was cheaper in West Virginia, I came back but still wasn’t sure that I’d stay.”
Canterbury ended up working several different jobs in her field. She has had chances to leave the state but like many West Virginians, mentioned the desire to stay close to her family.
“Over the past 16 years, I have had opportunities to leave but my grandparents, parents and in-laws are here and we won’t always have them,” she said. “My husband and I spent a lot of time with our grandparents when we were growing up and we want our children (ages 2 and 4) to have those opportunities too.”
Email: [email protected]; follow on Twitter @AndreaLannom
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