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A mixed approach of head and heart from academia retains young talent

Posted by Devin Cole  October 18, 2011 10:11 AM

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OConnor.Chad_.Headshot_.Final_.jpegSince Building A Better Commonwealth most recently has been dealing with the pressing issue of talent retention in Massachusetts, I have found myself asking what more can those of us in academia do to encourage the young engines of the economy to stay here beyond their college years? While those of us in the know can tout the merits of Massachusetts's, and especially Greater Boston's, economic diversity and relative health compared to other parts of the nation, the message does not seem to resonate as we think it should.

My good friend and colleague at Northeastern University's World Class Cities Partnership, Mike Lake, did a great job of highlighting some of this problem in a previous piece for this blog, but I want to focus more squarely on academia's role.

As a communication professional I diagnose the lack of resonance as a failure to bring emotion into the argument; to rely solely on logic in making the case to stay in Massachusetts will not achieve the same success as more emotional tactics can. But how can the universities and colleges help in this case?

Simply put, the colleges and universities need to focus more on fostering local connections between the students and the surrounding communities to encourage students to feel as though this is their home, that they are respected and valued here, and that they have an important role to play in Greater Boston's and the Commonwealth's future.

First, as individual faculty we should directly engage our students with community news and events. We can relate class discussions to things going on locally whenever possible (and clearly based on the subject matter we teach). We can make sure students know about interesting forums, speakers, networking events, launch parties and fundraising events whenever those notices, reminders and invites invariably show up in our inboxes. At least occasionally we should take the extra effort to personalize those invites and reinforce them by talking about them in class, not just forwarding it along and assuming everyone was paying it the highest level of attention the first time around.

Secondly, local academia needs to emphasize student community service as an essential component of curricula, not because it is a PR tool to make the university appear a good citizen, but because students who work on these community projects feel more engaged with the community and can see how their efforts make a difference. For instance, a college student who has spent time mentoring local youth ideally forms a lasting bond with the organization's staff and mentees, making it that much harder to leave them behind when graduation comes.

Thirdly, academia cannot stress enough the importance of student internships and co-ops. Students who are working at local companies and local nonprofits have a significantly better chance of staying here, capitalizing on the professional contacts they have made. Similarly to the previous point on community service, students who intern for local nonprofits have a better chance of seeing how their work is effecting the community. One of my essential duties as a good faculty member is connecting students to internships and job opportunities when I have been made aware of them. The Boston World Partnerships network has been especially beneficial to this end. It would take a pretty rare student to say "Please stop sending me all these local job and internship opportunities you hear about! Stop showing me how much you care about my future!" Believe me, students appreciate it.

Fourthly, and admittedly controversially, academia and local government need to consider carefully the impact of dorm expansion and housing policy on student-community integration. As students spend more time living in dorms and less time living in apartments around the area they may lose out on community attachment. They do not have to learn about the elderly woman who lives upstairs when they are living in the dorm. They may not discover the neighborhood that has every convenience they could want within a three block radius because they live in a dorm and simply gravitate to the on or near campus options. While some curmudgeonly neighbors may be glad to see the students out of their neighborhood and the weekend parties disappear, and while some local institutions may favor the increased predictable revenue of more students living on campus for a longer duration, one has to question what this shift does to a neighborhood's ability to replenish with young adults who need an affordable place to live in a community where they could have already begun to put down roots.

For many students the siren song of a far away home, to live in some degree of parental provided comfort while building up a bank account and paying down debts, will be too strong to resist after college. I think we can all appreciate their short-term rational calculus even as we know that long term they, and we, would be better served by them staying here to build up their personal and professional network while strengthening our economy. To better improve the odds of them staying, we cannot just rely on economic logic alone; instead, we also must hope our universities and colleges facilitate local attachments that would pull at a student's heartstrings if they think about moving elsewhere.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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