If young West Virginians think through the state’s problems together, maybe they’ll get hooked and stay here to solve them for real.

In 2016, the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy’s first Summer Policy Institute brought 40 West Virginia college students together for three days of learning and networking. The WVCBP treated the students, selected through a competitive application process, to a primer on the state’s budget and related policy issues.

Relationships forged there around a shared interest in the state’s prosperity gave WVCBP Policy Outreach Coordinator Tara Martinez hope. “I saw groups form of political science and pre-law students, geologists, social workers, from every political ideology, coming up with legislation they’d like to see passed,” she says. “They found commonalities.” Alumni still keep in touch.

The 2017 SPI, to be hosted at West Virginia University in July for 50 participants, will offer a more visceral simulation: managing widespread flooding. Friday afternoon presentations will lay out the roles agencies play during disasters, with an emphasis on budget and economic impacts. Students will break into groups of five and choose roles like communications or social services among themselves. Saturday will alternate between presentations and group work, ending with speed networking with potential employers. “Going to a reception and marketing themselves and their strengths, that will help them with soft skills,” Martinez says. On Sunday, the groups will propose their best practices.

“We envision a network of young people who have decided to stay here or come home,” Martinez says, “having organic conversations of, ‘The reality is that we have to find our common goals and work together.’ In 10 years, that could make a huge change in the state.”

What have you learned sparks the drive in young people to stay here and make West Virginia great?
A more visceral understanding of the state’s challenges is what makes the lightbulb go off. We need to build stronger relationships between young people and their state. When I was younger, I couldn’t wait to get out of West Virginia because I didn’t understand how much the state needed people like me to stay here and fight for her—how much my knowledge and the knowledge of everyone around me who decided to stay could build what we believe would make West Virginia a prosperous and wonderful place for everyone to raise families and live.

Meeting the people who are doing the work helps. Last year we had students in social work interested in juvenile justice who had never met a judge working in juvenile justice. Kanawha County Circuit Judge Joanna Tabit came and spoke, and we also had Stephanie Bond there, the director of the state Division of Juvenile Services. The students got to ask questions about how the system works and how we can make it better and pitch their ideas. Making these connections between young people and potential employers is very powerful.

Hard skills are important, but they’re not enough. Many times I’ve spoken with folks about hiring or about placement of interns, and they tell me that soft skills are really lacking—even if students have hard skills, they may not know how to connect with mentors and employers, how to sell themselves.

Connections make people feel, and be, effective. They say there are six degrees of separation between any two people, but here in West Virginia it’s more like one or two: Someone knows someone. When students have those connections, they start to see how they can get things done.

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