Proud To Be a West Virginian
Today, West Virginia celebrates 159 years as a state and I recently was thinking about an article I wrote a few years ago.
I was born in California, but my father and family have lived in St. Marys since the mid-1970s. I was 1 when my dad was honorably discharged from the U.S. Marine Corps and drove my mother and I to West Virginia.
My mother has since passed, but my father and I remain West Virginians. When I was younger, I was certainly tempted to leave the state, but I never did. As I grew older and added to my skill sets, my wife and I briefly considered a move when I was being interviewed for a think tank job early in the last decade. I didn’t get the job, and in hindsight I’m glad I didn’t.
I’m a proud West Virginian, a proud native of St. Marys and Pleasants County. I’m a proud former resident of Parkersburg and Wood County. And I’m a proud resident of Charleston and Kanawha County. I chose the National Geography Bee in middle school instead of the Golden Horseshoe, but I’m confident I could have easily become a knight of the Golden Horseshoe had I wanted.
While I’m a proud West Virginian, I don’t identify as an Appalachian and I really don’t understand the recent fascination with that term (or how it should be pronounced, which I believe it can be pronounced both ways). That’s probably because in the part of the state where I grew up in, we don’t have anything close to mountains. I grew up along the Ohio River in a town that only exists because someone on a riverboat had a vision of the Virgin Mary floating above the shoreline.
I write all of this above as a preface to what you’re about to read below. The following is a piece I wrote for a website called Vandaleer in 2016, but I find the content still timely. I know West Virginia can be a hard place to live, particularly for people of my generation and younger. But I can truly say it is worth it and hopefully the piece below will motivate you to discover your West Virginia pride today on the state’s birthday.
Living in West Virginia, for some young adults, is a struggle. If so, it’s a struggle I’m happy to endure.
A few months back a couple of different entities sent out a request for stories from West Virginia millennials on why they choose to live in the Mountain State or why they might consider leaving. They were encouraged to use the hashtag #TheStruggleToStay when submitting their anecdotes.
When I first saw this hashtag come scrolling down my Twitter timeline it ate at me. It radiated negativity, which I’m sure was the goal. It was designed to get a reaction and get a reaction it did.
I get it. If you’re of that age, the prospects of staying in West Virginia for any length of time after college probably don’t look good. If you look at the top five in-demand jobs, it’s easy to see that West Virginia isn’t the place to be (at least not yet).
For young professionals, it’s easy to look at the job market, the political landscape, the health, and even the ingrained culture of our state and want to go running for the nearest border. These people do this without understanding that by their actions they’re actually making the situation worse, not better.
According to the WVU College of Business and Economics, West Virginia is expected to lose more than 19,000 people by 2030. That’s more than 1 percent of the state’s population gone. On the other hand, West Virginia’s population north of 65-years old will make up nearly a quarter of the state’s residents in the same time frame.
With that data in mind, who do you think will shape West Virginia economically, socially and culturally for years to come? Not its young professionals, but the same people who have always controlled this state and largely kept it in the dark ages. That only changes if young men and women do something bold: stay.
You see, our ancestors didn’t struggle to stay. They struggled to get here in the first place. It was a struggle to create homesteads here. It was a struggle to till the ground on these hills. It was a struggle to wrest this state from Confederate Virginia, so much so that President Abraham Lincoln had to pace in his pajamas to mull it over. It was a struggle to mine the coal, forge the steel and mold the glass.
You see, West Virginia was born of struggle. We need not see West Virginia as a burden, but an opportunity, much the way our ancestors did. If you’re a young professional in this state, you’re every bit the pioneer your great-great-great-grandparents were. You’re 21st century Mountaineers.
We need to be more involved. We need to be taking the entrepreneurial risks and planting the seeds of West Virginia’s new economy. We need to be more involved politically, running for local and state office, getting appointed to local boards and agencies. We need to focus on giving back, joining philanthropic and community service organizations, volunteering our time and our skills.
None of this will be easy and none of this will change the state overnight. It will be a long game and, well, a struggle. It starts with us. It starts with us staying.
To make big changes we’re going to have many struggles. I just hope the struggle to stay is no longer one of those struggles.