Why Leave The Rural Midwest? A Student’s Perspective

Champaign County, outside of the University, is relatively rural, with 90.5% of the total land area dedicated to agriculture (Source: Champaign County, Local Government Information Center, see link below).  For entrepreneurs and founders, this means setting up in or near a rural community.  As a student who grow up in the suburbs, I have yet to  fully understand or experience living a rural communities.  To try to understand why talented students who grow up happily in rural communities don’t want to return, I turned to my friend, Taylor Oltman.  Her story illustrates the additional challenge that rural communities face in retaining talent.

Taylor is a junior in Mechanical Engineering, with a minor in Technology and Management from Effingham, IL.  These are her thoughts:

I didn’t always know I loved growing up in a small town. In high school, like everyone else I talked to, we complained to our parent we had nothing to do. I envied my friends who lived 5 minutes from the mall, as the closest one was over an hour away. Not until I left for school was I really able to see how blessed I was growing up where I did. In leaving a small town you see what else is out there, its the classic the grass is greener on the other side. I was lucky enough to get to go to Chicago and St. Louis for weekends growing up so I got my taste of the “city life” and after spending 3 weeks in Sydney, AU when I was 16 I could not wait to get out of the small town. I thought there was so much more out there to do. After leaving I realized I just grew up different. My friends and I had the freedom to roam, drive up and down backroads all night, we could get away with anything from painting trains and tunnels to toiletpapering and saran wrapping peoples houses and trucks, and just sit out by bonfires and swim in ponds with good friends. These are things the suburbs and city cannot offer. Although I love being 5 minutes away from a mall here at school, I think spending your youth and teen years in a small town teaches you strong values in morality and hard work, as well as a huge sense of community. Which I feel like is lost in large towns and big cities. The community I lived in watched out for each other, stepped up to help out when help was needed (and people knew when, cause its a small town: everyone knows everyone and everything, things are not kept secret for long). Good and bad, the community watched out for each other and wanted each person to succeed. 

Since leaving I have been able to see the good and bad aspects of the rural lifestyle. Some people never leave and find success and influence within the town, but some of the most interesting people I have met are those who left and came back, or somehow just ended up there. By leaving and going both to college and to the big city a person gains experience: the opportunity to meet people who are not like you (since for the most part most people in my town were white German Catholics, with a fairly recent family history of agriculture or construction. (Even one of the most successful companies , and industrial development company [Agracel], in our town, started off investing in farmland.) By meeting people with mounds of experience and diversity as well as working in different industries and areas a person can gain so much knowledge that if they decide they would like to come back one day they have so much more to offer the community, than if they had simply stayed and come back to work straight out of school. It is usually the people who leave and come back that can provide the most development within the community and really help the community thrive. Growing up in this comfortable community it can be a bit uncomfortable for people to go to a city and be surrounded by people they don’t know (and who don’t know them). They don’t have access to nature like their used to. The loss of comfort is a big deterrent for some. And since many people are interested in Ag or construction these companies usually are located in smaller cities (like CAT in Peoria or John Deere in Iowa, they are not located in big cities). 

A huge region for not going immediately back to a small town after graduation is I already know what it has to offer. (I’ve met the people, learned what they had to teach..) It doesn’t have that much to offer to people in their mid-to-late 20‘s.It lacks the nightlife and large young professional population that the city has. for the most part if you’re not dating someone when you graduate you’re probably not going to find them in a small town.. Since most people who are college educated leave for a few years before returning home. 

IN SHORT.. I want to go to the city to broaden my horizons, learn more than I might learn immediately returning home, and experience the life of a true young professional. Plus the city has a certain mystique to it, those sparking lights are pretty attractive for a while, then if I decide to settle down in a small town and raise a family like I was raised, I won’t have to wonder what I’d be missing.  

Taylor’s story is fairly common.  Just from conversation, it’s clear that many talented studies will leave Champaign for the “sparkling lights” and “mystique” of a bigger city.  This brain drain is exactly why Champaign needs to invest in a powerful initiative to provide incentives that attract talent, name the Entrepreneur Visa Loan program.


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