2016-05-01 / Start Here

The New Cool Kids

Meet the State College millennials you actually do want living next door.
Galen Bernard

I’m thrilled to open a column that will profile the success and struggles of innovative young adults in State College.

As the executive director of New Leaf Initiative — a nonprofit that helps these individuals create companies, social impact and meaningful careers — I’ve seen the pains that drive them from town and their extraordinary potential when they stay.

I want to give three facts to preface the story of possibility I’m about to share with you.

• Pennsylvania has the most high school graduates coming from out of state to our universities yet the third oldest population in the country.

• In 2001 and 2002, the state government spent $12 million on “Stay Invent the Future,” an initiative to keep young talent in the Commonwealth.

• Last year, the main idea to attract and retain millennials was legislation to keep bars open
till 4 a.m.

There must be a better solution. We need a better solution. Centre County in particular. The Knight Foundation, which studies engaged communities, found that every age group identified 18- to 34-year-olds as the least welcome in State College. A description I’ve often heard of the region’s relationship with young talent is “the death zone.”

I hear strong consensus that this is a problem for the local economy and culture. Government officials cite the tax base issues. Company executives note the hiring difficulties. And anyone who thinks State College is overrun by apparel stores and sports bars names the cultural costs when creative 20- and 30-somethings can’t get sponsorship or capital for alternatives.

I also hear strong skepticism that change is possible. Many longtime locals voice an internal conflict — the desire to see enterprising young adults thrive in State College clashing with doubt that such individuals are actually here, want to stay, and merit support.

I understand why this skeptical narrative exists. My first night visiting town to see if I wanted to move, I encountered a multi-house toga party as I left downtown.

“Why don’t you have a toga? You need a toga!” yelled one of the students streaming past. “Welcome to State College,” I thought.

Fortunately, I had the opportunity to see a different story of 20-somethings here.

The day after the Roman encounter, I visited New Leaf. I met students and early professionals hungry for more than drinking and themed diversion. Instead, they were creating or contributing to ventures addressing issues such as STEM education, women’s empowerment and affordable health care. Later, I spoke with residents of the, a home for even more young local leaders. That day was filled with much better questions.

Today, I get to work with Jessie Pierce, who’s addressing food security throughout the county. And Paul Girgis, who’s helping Penn State increase entrepreneurship across the Commonwealth. And Jessica Menold, who co-founded two startups, one designing a better prosthetic for people in developing countries and another educating Syrian refugee children.

People like Jessie, Paul, Jessica and many more are why I stayed, why I invested in State College. I encourage you to read their stories in this column, and to visit New Leaf to connect with them in person.

I also ask you to have faith even when they falter, or fail, or leave. While State College becomes a better place for innovators to thrive, the goal need not be that they never leave; it should be that they never flee. If these individuals feel supported while here, they’ll contribute their time, wealth and knowledge even from afar, continuing to enrich the region.

That said, more millennials are staying. Over 10 percent of New Leaf’s membership said they initially thought they’d leave in 2015 but stayed. They’re intrigued by the community they see emerging. They’re also still struggling to pay rent. To keep them for good will not take bars open later, or even more bike trails. They’ll need to experience more financial, media and participant support for their ventures.

That sense of support can change lives and change a culture. I recently texted three New Leaf coworking members, thanking them for letting me work among them “with the cool kids” for an afternoon. The reply: “Thanks for creating a place where we get to be the cool kids.”

There is so much possibility right now. Without you joining in, it could fade. With you, it will flourish. Let’s create a new narrative together.

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