Guest column/Convincing young people to stay in region

As students get their minds around returning to school this time of year, here at the Community Foundation for the Ohio Valley, we are concluding one of our favorite programs — the Community Leader Internship Program. Established in 2012, the program, formerly known as the Civic Leaders Fellowship Program, provides paid internships to college students who are native to the Ohio Valley. Participants are placed with host businesses that match their intended field of study. The goals for the program are to increase the probability of these young leaders returning to the region after they graduate.

This year’s interns were full of enthusiasm and energy, as they are every year. Most of the students already have decided what they want to do with their degrees; others are still unsure. The placements we find for the students help them either solidify their direction or help them decide on a path.

What makes this program different from a traditional internship? Each Friday, the program incorporates activities and speakers designed to enhance the positive attributes of our region. Speakers this year included young professionals who have found success and happiness by choosing to stay in the area as well as other local leaders.

Wheeling Mayor Glenn Elliott was one of the Friday speakers, taking time to listen to feedback from the participants on what it would take to encourage them to settle in the Ohio Valley after graduation. Other highlights from the Friday sessions also included a tour of the Capitol Theater, ziplining at Grand Vue Park and tours of new downtown living options.

Our career hosts play a vital role in the program. They mentor these young people, introduce them to other professionals in their chosen field and help them navigate what it’s like to work in a professional setting. This year’s hosts were Dr. Daniel Wilson’s office, the Wheeling Nailers, Wheeling Hospital, Belmont County Health Department, American Electric Power, Wheeling Health Right, YWCA Wheeling, Ohio County Health Department, Touchstone Research Labs, city of Wheeling, Marshall County Animal Shelter, Regional Economic Development Group, U.S. District Bankruptcy Court and Legal Aid of West Virginia. The value of creating networks within these professional settings is immeasurable when graduates are deciding what they will do when they graduate.

The program would not be possible without the generous support of donors and sponsors. The program initially was funded through the generosity of the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation with support from local private foundations. Today, CFOV actively seeks out grant funding and sponsor support each year.

With the goal of retaining these young people through networking and promoting the benefits of the region, we have seen some successes. Brooke Robinson and Hayden Blazer are two recent examples. Brooke is from St. Clairsville High School and Ohio University Eastern. A marketing major, Brooke was placed one year at Beyond Marketing and a second year at the city of Martins Ferry. Today, she is the digital marketing administrator for the Belmont County Tourism Council.

Hayden is a John Marshall High School and West Liberty University graduate, majoring in business administration with a focus on accounting. Hayden is now employed by Main Street Bank while he works on his master’s degree.

This year’s group of students represented Ohio, Marshall, Belmont and Jefferson counties.

A report from the Pew Charitable Trust showed that West Virginia is one of only two states to lose population in the last 10 years. A contributing factor to this loss in population is that West Virginia sees more deaths than births compared to other states, according to the analysis.

Unless our region continues to support programs such as the Community Leader Internship Program, this decline is only going to continue. Programs such as this that are intentional in the goal of retaining young adults are vital to help slow this population loss.

This program is a community effort. To achieve the goal of retaining more of our region’s young professionals, we must continue to work together.

We encourage business leaders who may be interested in hosting an intern in the 2020 program to reach out to us at CFOV. The more variety of placements available to these students, the more chance we will see them return after graduation.

(Nelson is executive director of the Wheeling-based Community Foundation for the Ohio Valley.)