Every good commencement address begins with a story. Here’s ours.
This goes back to the 1980s. Democrats were in charge of state government then, but the political affiliation doesn’t matter; the lesson is so universal that even the most partisan Republicans will identify with this one.
Bobby Scott, now a congressman, was then a state senator from Newport News. Late one afternoon he got a phone call from George Gilliam, a lawyer in Charlottesville and prominent Democratic activist. Gilliam needed a big favor and he needed it right now. Gilliam was chairman of the state community college board. That evening he was scheduled to give the commencement address at Eastern Shore Community College — which was, and still is, quite a drive from, well, almost anywhere.
Gilliam had a court case that had him tied up in Charlottesville, so he’d made arrangements through the office of Gov. Charles Robb to use the governor’s plane to fly him to the speaking gig. However, the pilots had just called to say that the weather was too bad to fly. Gilliam was in a bind. It was too late to drive to the Eastern Shore. Hence, the need to call in a favor: Drop what you’re doing right now, Gilliam told Scott, and drive to the Eastern Shore to deliver the speech. Surely, as a politician, you have a standard graduation speech filed away somewhere, Gilliam said. These were the days before e-mails and even faxes: Gilliam had no way to get the speech he’d prepared to Scott. If Scott left right now, he’d just be able to make it to the school.
Scott reluctantly agreed. Just as he was getting ready to head out the door – these were days before cellphones, too – his phone rang again. It was Gilliam. Good news! The pilots had just called back. The clouds had suddenly parted and they were able to fly to Charlottesville and get him to the Eastern Shore, after all, so Scott didn’t have to go. As Scott told the story years later, this was a win-win situation for him: He got the credit for being willing to do something inconvenient, but didn’t actually have to do it.
Pause for laughs.
We draw a different lesson from the story, though. What we notice is the implication that every politician has a standard graduation speech lying around. Just in case some don’t, we’ll offer some pointers for one. Telling a story is always a good opener. Giving some advice is another. Here’s the advice we’d like to see someone tell graduates in this part of the state — be they high school or college. Everyone tells graduates to go off and pursue their dream. But here’s the twist we’d add: Come back home to do it.
Now, this advice doesn’t apply to everyone, of course. If your goal is to become an astronaut, well, there aren’t too many launch pads around here. But if there’s a way to pursue your chosen career at home, then please do so. Rural Virginia needs you more than Northern Virginia does.
Most rural communities in Virginia — indeed, in most rural communities anywhere —need at least two things. They need more young adults, and they need more people with post-secondary education. Every college graduate that moves back home instantly checks off two of those boxes at once.
These are the critical numbers that the every member of every governing body in rural Virginia ought to know by heart:
n Most rural communities are losing population. They’re also getting older, because the people most likely to move away are working-age adults. Even those handful of rural localities that are gaining population — such as Botetourt County, which benefits by being a suburb of Roanoke — are still getting older, because they’re trading young adults for retirees.
Places like Arlington are getting younger; the median age there dropped from 33.9 in 2010 to 33.8 in 2015. By contrast, most rural localities in Virginia have a median age that’s north of 40, and growing older with each passing year. In Craig County, it’s 46.1. In Alleghany County, it’s 46.8. In Patrick County, it’s 46.9. In Rockbridge County, it’s 47.7. In Grayson County, it’s 47.9. In Bath County, it’s 49.8. Those are some of the oldest communities in the state but not the oldest. That distinction belongs to Highland County, with a median age of 58.6. All those communities need new residents — younger residents. There are some bottom-line economics involved: An aging population means a shrinking labor pool, which makes communities less likely to attract new employers — and may jeopardize holding onto the employers they already have. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the demographics can set off an economic death spiral.
n Rural communities also need more educated workers. The new economy puts a greater emphasis on workers with post-secondary education than the old one — and that’s where rural areas are having the hardest time keeping up. In Falls Church, 74.4% of adults have a college degree. In most counties in Southwest and Southside Virginia, that figure is under 20%. In Buchanan County and Covington, it’s 8.3%. In Greensville County, it’s 7.2%. It’s unclear how rural areas are going to close such a massive gap, but every college graduate who moves back home helps. The problem, of course, is that graduates will find fewer opportunities in their rural hometowns, but the mere act of moving back home indirectly helps by making the labor pool more attractive.
Now, we realize that so far we’ve listed ways that graduates moving back home would help the hometown and been short on ways that moving back home would help the new graduate. Let’s recognize the obvious: There are fewer job opportunities and fewer social opportunities in rural areas.
However, there is one thing that rural communities have in abundance, even if they don’t always realize it. There are more leadership opportunities available and if it’s one thing many rural communities need, it’s new and younger leadership. In some places, that new and younger leadership may not always be welcome, but that only means it’s all the more necessary. In general, a college graduate moving back home has a better chance of making a difference in the life of their community there than if they moved to some big, anonymous city. That may not appeal to everyone, but we should hope it appeals to enough. The old admonition “go west, young man” today ought to amended to read “go home, young man — and young woman.”
There: Now somebody has a graduation speech.