This spring, my wife and I, along with our family, will celebrate with our oldest daughter, Lauren, her graduation from high school.
I would say that you are all invited to the celebration, but we would have to process more than one fatted calf to feed you all. Anyway, her college plans are set, and she is looking forward to the next stage in her life. As her parents, we look forward to that as well.
But it makes us think more about where she will live and work after college. We would love it if she would find her place near her old hometown. Many rural communities do a great job of preparing their high school and college graduates for life. We teach the kids about self-discipline, hard work, goal setting, following through with promises and thinking big. That's the farming and ranching way. But after doing all of that preparation as parents, schools, churches and communities, we often encourage our children to go elsewhere to make their dreams come true.
That's a big mistake in my opinion. We need our best and brightest to come back home to make their living, raise their families and contribute to the betterment of our rural life. They are our future, and we need to work harder to encourage them to return home.
But that takes planning and hard work — just as much as raising and educating those same kids did. We need to be asking them what they want out of the communities where they settle down. You might think that salary is at the top of the list, but more often than not, money is down the line a bit.
What are the career goals of rural graduates? What values will they carry into their families? What are their most important institutions, like schools and churches? Is money their top priority, or does quality of life, low cost of living, closeness to family, and hometown safety and friendliness account for something to them as well?
If we ask these questions now, we can prepare our communities to embrace those young folks when they do return home. We can invest in our farms and ranches, so there is a place for our rural youth to work and raise their families. We can invest in business and entrepreneurial opportunities, community infrastructure, schools and churches, and even recreation, to help make our communities the kind of place anyone would love to live.
Our own hometown has been fortunate enough to embrace scores of young folks who have returned home after college to raise their families and work. Some live and work on farms, while others have started their own businesses or work in the area. They not only contribute economically to our area, but also volunteer at the community, church and school levels and contribute in a big way to the vitality of our hometown.
For communities to take advantage of the talents and gifts of their young people, they need first to understand what those rural graduates want from life. My guess is that most rural communities possess great value in the hearts of their rural graduates. Quality of life and the rural lifestyle are the kinds of things we can tout to our young graduates today in hopes of paving the way for them to return home one day down the road.