High school graduates around farm country will receive lots of advice from family, friends, teachers and neighbors over the next few weeks during their commencement ceremonies. Valedictorians will bid their old high schools and hometowns farewell, and offer well wishes for classmates as they begin the next chapters in their young lives. Graduates will hear hometown folks say things like, “Go out and make something of your lives.” They’ll hear advice like, “Get out there and make a difference.” Well-meaning relatives might advise, “Get away from here and never look back.”
If I’m a graduate from a rural high school listening to these messages, I might get the message loud and clear. You have to leave rural America to make a difference, to be considered successful, to make something of your life. I might even think people are saying, “There is no opportunity here. Get out while you can.”
The same folks who give this kind of vibe to our graduating seniors might also be the ones to complain about the shrinking size of our classes at the community school, and the greater tax burden on local landowners because of it. They might complain about local businesses closing doors, or local services on decline. They could even be the first ones to notice that no young families exist on farms and ranches around the community, like in the “old days.”
Does anyone out there experience this kind of negativity in their own hometowns? Why is that the case?
I believe that every commencement should be a celebration of the graduates and the attributes of a high quality, hometown high school education. It should celebrate the beauty and neighborliness of our small towns and those small public and parochial schools that educate our students so well. The message graduates need to hear us say at these commencements should be much more positive.
Tell them, “Remember where you came from.” And, “Go out, get your education, and remember that the doors are always open for you to return.” Let us tell the truth, “Your hometown is still the safest, warmest and friendliest place you will ever know. Someday, you will truly appreciate that. We invite you, we encourage you, we want you to return home to raise your families, to start new businesses, to farm and ranch, to coach our little league baseball teams and volunteer for 4-H and FFA. This is a great place to live out the rest of your life.”
Guidance counselors in our hometowns need to expose graduates to careers in the community. Instead of moving our greatest talent away from home, they could invite them home again to start new small businesses, or to work in local industries and farms and ranches. We all need to say to our graduates, “Don’t overlook home when you are choosing your career paths.”
If that was the message at every rural commencement, we might see more young people taking up our invitation and revitalizing our rural communities. I am quite fortunate. In my hometown, there is a small, but thriving business and farm community. There are scores of young families with lots of young children. Our schools are small, but enrollment is not declining. Our churches are vital and active. Our population is diverse, with as many young families as there are elderly. That is truly a blessing, but it doesn’t come by accident. It takes encouragement and a welcoming, positive message from parents, grandparents and community leaders to make it that way. We don’t want to kick our graduates out the door and beckon them not to return. We want to invite our talented young folks back, whenever they wish. We need to let them know that the welcome mat is always out, and, we’ll leave the light on for them.
Here is this week’s discussion question. What message did you get from your high school guidance counselor when you were planning a career path? Did your counselor encourage you to return someday, or to get out of town as quickly as possible? Let us know about your experiences as a high school graduate.
Be sure to read the front page story “Generational shift,” and the accompanying story on page 4 of the May print issue of Nebraska Farmer, to learn about Nathan Gubbels, Randolph, and his move back home to the family farm after college. Check out Nebraska Farmer online for the latest news on the growing and grazing season. Your best online resource for drought information is the Farm Progress drought site at Dateline Drought. And watch this blog the last Friday of every month for my new “Field Editor’s Report” featuring the positive stories about the families who raise our food. Pass it on!