The fall semester is now halfway over, and our ACRI project is well underway. We have learned a great deal about the communities of Fayette County, most notably from our site visit October 12th-14th. This visit allowed us to talk to community members face-to-face and experience some of what the county has to offer. We stayed in cabins at Touchstone Center for Crafts, an organization that provides multi-day art workshops, ranging from painting to blacksmithing. Driving through the woods to get there and hiking around the campus made it obvious why Fayette County has such successful ecotourism. The rural nature of the area has allowed for the preservation of the forests of the region and the hilly terrain allows for amazing views and water features.
My group’s main focus for the trip was talking to administrators and students at local high schools to gain insight into what is driving young people and how to help them succeed. One of the top issues facing the region, as identified by residents, is the loss of young people. We want to understand their motivations behind leaving and what might make them stay or come back.
At Uniontown Area High School, we met with the school co-principal and the librarian, who advises Celebrate Uniontown, a marketing campaign promoting the city which is run by high school students under the guidance of Pitt students in the ACRI. We also met with the two students currently involved in the project. This interview was helpful for getting an idea of the mindset of many of the high school students in the area. A key point raised was that many students, especially ones not in the vocational school, don’t have a solid concept of the options available to them. Not knowing the broad scope of careers that exist, and not knowing how to go about breaking into those fields, has left many students feeling somewhat lost. They haven’t found a passion within the paths that are more obvious to them, such as being a teacher or doctor. One student also expressed frustration with the fact that many of the school’s most interesting courses are only offered as electives that run for a quarter of the school year.
Another takeaway from this interview was the concern about blight. There are many dilapidated buildings in Uniontown and across Fayette County and it brings a sense of shame to the community. All the students in the district walk to school, and it was presented that walking past these overgrown, falling apart, or otherwise not taken care of buildings brings on a sense of negativity and unpleasantness. Students from other districts, when visiting for sports games or other competitions, have even brought it up.
It was also emphasized to us that there exists a mindset of “getting out” as being a measure of success. The goal of many students after graduation is to leave the area. This resonates with the issue of loss of young people that the public survey showed. The main motivator in the eyes of the students seemed to not necessarily be a lack of opportunities in the area but more-so a lack of pride in the community and a general sense that you aren’t living up to your potential if you don’t leave. It was expressed that they do feel like some former students held themselves back by not doing so.
At Laurel Highlands, a neighboring school district, we met with the Director of Curriculum & Instruction, the principal, and several guidance counselors. They provided us with a good insight as to how the high school is preparing students for the future and what some of the pain points are for them. A point that resonated in interviews at both high schools is the success of the local vocational technical school, Fayette County Career & Technical Institute. It appears to be highly beneficial for students who are certain that this is the path they intend to pursue. One distinguishing feature of Laurel Highlands High School is its program structure, allowing students to attend the technical institute while concurrently enrolling in advanced courses like AP or college-level classes. They took a lot of pride in their academic offerings and noted that student generally haven’t had trouble getting into colleges. Many do have a hard time paying for college though, and for that reason tend to stick to local or state schools, despite viewing them somewhat unfavorably. The administrators also informed us that frequently, students who have ventured far for college, such as Arizona, have faced difficulties and eventually returned home. This seems to be a trend not just for students. Many people move back to the area when they’re struggling to be around their familial support system. This was especially prominent during the pandemic.
Another takeaway from this interview was the importance of parents as decision makers. Uniontown focused more directly on the students, whereas Laurel Highlands focused on reaching the parents and their influence on the students. They’ve struggled with parent communication and a lack of engagement from them but have gotten very successful turnouts at events like their financial aid night. We also discovered that parents are a driving force for students leaving the area after high school, as they aspire for their children to have improved lives, often believing that leaving the area is the key to achieving that.
Our conversations had with these groups are fueling the direction we’re going with our project, specifically in terms of Celebrate Uniontown initiatives. To help students in the area broaden their horizons about future career paths and better understand how to pursue them, we are setting up interviews between the Uniontown students and various college students and professionals, based on the interests of their peers. These interviews will be recorded and posted on Uniontown High School’s social media account, Tomahawk Talk. The goal is for students to be exposed to new career options, gain confidence in pursuing their interests, and network with professionals who can help them in their journey. Some interviewees will be ones who live in Uniontown. These will have an added benefit of showcasing the variety of employment opportunities and success stories within their own community, going against the mindset that one must leave to advance.
Two members of the community who had an opposite path as many of these kids are Bill and Brad. Both of them work in tech in remote positions and moved to Uniontown from other states, driven by the fact that their wives’ families were from the area. The concept of remote works opens up room for highly educated individuals to work in more rural areas without losing out on employment opportunities. With this factor accounted for, the next becomes recreational opportunities and community building: what can one do outside of work that is fulfilling? For Bill and Brad, this looks like volunteering to improve the community as part of Friends of the Sheepskin Trail and the Uniontown Redevelopment Authority. We’ll be working with them on a community survey put out to Uniontown residents, which will help them and us further understand their needs and what improvements can be made. The survey was already created, but we edited it and are working on promotional materials for it and will be analyzing the data when it comes in to inform our partners and future student cohorts.
Something that surprised me about this visit was the vast percentage of people we talked to who boomeranged back to Fayette County, meaning they grew up there, moved away, and came back later in life. While it makes perfect sense, it wasn’t a path I had put much thought into. With only one 4-year college in the county, a branch campus of Penn State, there aren’t many opportunities to pursue higher education while staying very local. Growing up in Pittsburgh, there were six colleges a short bus ride or walk away from my childhood home. If I had wanted or needed to, I could have easily commuted to college, saving tens of thousands of dollars, an amount that can greatly affect the affordability of attending college. The move back to Fayette County is the one that interests me the most. I think that residents leaving to develop skills and bringing them back into the community is going to be a successful mode of growth for the county. I think future groups will do well to learn more about the motivations driving people to return and what can be done to promote that. From what I’ve heard so far, the main reasons have been family support and a desire to improve the community they grew up in. Pride in their hometown and a strong feeling of connection to it are big drivers and should be fostered. The Celebrate Uniontown campaign is one portion of our project that is working on this, and its expansion to other locations in the county could have additional benefits to the region.
Overall, this visit to Fayette County was very successful. Meeting with high school administrators built connections that Pitt previously did not have with the community. We were able to learn much from them and have opened the door for future partnerships. Listening to the students running Celebrate Uniontown also helped us figure out how we can best use our connections and current social media platforms to help students at the school plan for their future education and careers after high school. Without visiting in person, we would not have been able to have as natural of conversations with community members and would not have been as immersed in the community. Visiting local shops, attending a high school football game, and walking around the town gave us insight into the energy of the area and its assets.