Matthew Artimez is an admissions officer’s dream. In addition to earning excellent grades throughout his years at John Marshall High School in Glen Dale, West Virginia, Artimez is the captain of his school’s soccer team, a member of the swim team, and a lifeguard. He referees youth soccer and participates in a math and science program for minority and underrepresented students. He is a member of both the computer team and the book club and has taken nine AP classes. He has completed hundreds of hours of community service and works on the restoration of the historic Strand Theatre in Moundsville, WV. A former member of the John Marshall High School marching band and his town’s youth orchestra, he also plays the trumpet in his spare time. He plans to study engineering and mathematics in college, and I really want him to apply to Yale.
I met Artimez, a happy-go-lucky high school senior with chocolate brown eyes and a mouth full of braces, while working as an intern this summer at the West Virginia Governor’s Honors Academy (GHA). Founded in 1984 by Governor John D. Rockefeller IV, the Academy was created to offer the state’s high-achieving students an academically stimulating atmosphere in a collegiate setting. In its current form, GHA admits 180 rising high school seniors and houses them in dormitories for three weeks during the summer, providing students with a window into the possibilities of college life.
I ended up working at the Governor’s Honors Academy somewhat reluctantly. Although I had wanted to do it since I completed the program in 2007, sharing summer plans with friends eventually became something of an embarrassment for me. While my friends were working on marketing strategies for Starbucks, I was sequestered forty-five minutes from the nearest caffeinated oasis without another Yalie for miles. I manipulated my decision to work at GHA into an act of extreme altruism; instead of selfishly applying for an internship at Little Brown Books or painting in the south of France, I graciously deigned to return to my roots and introduce some ignorant high school kids to the ways of the Ivy League. My best friend joked, “You escaped, and now you’re lowering down the rope.” I accepted that rationale readily.
But in reality, the job paid a lot.
Much to my disappointment, not many GHA students were interested in hearing me rave endlessly about the virtues of an Ivy League education; in fact, many would-be qualified applicants, including Artimez, seemed mostly uninterested in their out-of-state options. West Virginia, like fifteen other states, offers a merit-based scholarship program to encourage students to stay in state for college. And while many students are desperate to leave West Virginia’s cultural isolation, the majority does not, citing cost as the primary concern.
Throughout the three weeks I spent at GHA, I remembered having to make the same decision myself. For this group of talented students, the most heart-wrenching question of the college admissions process is: for love or money?
“I always tell students not to waste their money on a fancy undergraduate degree,” said a GHA physics teacher to a colleague during dinner one evening. I sat across the table from this conversation in silence, feeling like I was wearing a scarlet letter “Y” emblazoned on all my clothing.
Although GHA officially does not claim to offer advice on choosing a post-secondary path, the issue was at the forefront of both students’ and faculty’s minds throughout the Academy. West Virginia high school seniors who earn a composite score of at least 22 on the ACT — he national average is 21.1, and West Virginia’s average is 20.7 — and maintain a 3.0 cumulative grade point average qualify for the Providing Real Opportunities for Maximizing In-State Student Excellence (PROMISE) scholarship. Established in 2002 by Governor Bob Wise, the PROMISE offers qualified West Virginia high school graduates full tuition and fees at any public institution in the state or an equivalent amount ($4,750) at a private in-state college or university.
For the state’s highest achieving students — those who attend the Governor’s Honors Academy — there is no question about whether they’ll receive the scholarship. But should they accept it?
“To be honest, the only good reason for staying in state is the fact that it’s cheap,” emphasized Steve Robison, a junior International Relations major at West Virginia University and a member of the GHA class of 2007. “There’s really no other reason.”
Despite having received a fat envelope from every college on his list — including Georgetown, Duke, and the University of North Carolina — Robison, who was a resident advisor at GHA 2010, elected to remain in his home state for college to accept WVU’s prestigious Foundation scholarship. In addition to receiving full tuition and fees from the PROMISE, along with four other native West Virginians, Robison has a full ride to the institution plus a one-time $4,500 award to apply to a study abroad experience. “[My decision] had to do with the sheer volume of money,” Robison stressed. “Either I was $200,000 in debt or I made $8,000.”
With money as a deciding factor for most college-bound students, perhaps it is no surprise that 38.7% of the class of 2008’s PROMISE-eligible students reported that their decision to attend an in-state school instead of an out-of-state college rested on the scholarship.
But the goal of the PROMISE scholarship is not simply to keep students in the state for college. The program was created principally to encourage students to stay in West Virginia after they graduate, so they can stimulate the economy, start innovative businesses, create more jobs, and, in turn, make more people want to move there. In a December 2009 press release detailing fall 2009 enrollment data, West Virginia Education Policy Commission chancellor Dr. Brian Noland said, “With economic uncertainty still a reality, the real challenge is to retain and graduate students, so they can enter the workforce and help solidify personal goals, but also improve the state’s economy and national standing.”
Despite the scholarship’s success in creating incentives for students to do well in high school and maintain high GPA’s in college in order to qualify for the PROMISE, the state of West Virginia was not seeing the results it wanted from the program. Around the time I was attending GHA, the state government realized that the PROMISE might not be generating the kind of in-state enthusiasm they had hoped for: after accepting the scholarship, students were graduating college and moving away. So Governor Joe Manchin, a West Virginia University alum, proposed changes to the program that incited controversy among graduating seniors. In his January 2008 State of the State address, the Governor expressed his desire to add a stipulation requiring PROMISE recipients to work in the state after graduating, or pay the scholarship back. “In order to make sure that the people of West Virginia are getting a return on the substantial investment they’re making in these students’ futures,” Manchin said in his speech, “we need to ensure that our native sons and daughters look seriously at their career options here before assuming that the pastures might be greener on the other side of the state line.”
Although his proposal failed, Manchin’s concerns proved to be valid. In a 2009 survey conducted by West Virginia University, researchers announced that the scholarship wasn’t working as effectively as Gov. Bob Wise had anticipated. The study revealed that approximately 62 percent of PROMISE graduates were employed in West Virginia, while 67 percent of all graduates from West Virginia institutions remained in state for work. This suggests that the scholarship, which has been celebrated by everyone from in-state university administrators to West Virginia legislators to high school guidance counselors, is not generating the kind of human capital the state needs to improve both culturally and economically.
Government officials firmly believe that keeping the state’s “native sons and daughters” close to home will boost the state’s image and cultural offerings, but it is the lack of cultural resources that makes students want to leave.
Rocky Diegmiller is one of those students. A senior at Wheeling Park High School in Wheeling, WV interested in biomedical engineering, the ambitious Diegmiller “want[s] to get as far away from home as possible” because of the limited academic and cultural opportunities in the mountain state. Sharif Youssef ’14, a freshman in Pierson College and one of eight West Virginians enrolled in Yale College, agrees. “I came to Yale to…interact with people who are completely different [from me]. I wouldn’t have gotten that experience had I stayed in West Virginia,” he said.
Students, like Diegmiller, who exaggerate that they’re “dying” to break through the financial barrier that separates West Virginia from Pennsylvania, are part of West Virginia’s problem, according to Dr. Keith Garbutt, the director of WVU’s University Honors Program and rising dean of next year’s Academy. A native of Wales, Garbutt settled in West Virginia in 1987. “When we moved, it was like, ‘what a beautiful place,’” he said. “It always bothers me when students act like they can’t stand it. We have incredible natural resources and unbelievable people. The image is not what West Virginia is.”
Dr. Nicki LoCascio feels similarly. “West Virginia needs a good PR person,” she said. “I lived in Virginia for years, and West Virginia was always the ‘poor neighbor.’” LoCascio grew up outside of London and now works as the director of the Society of Yeager Scholars at Marshall University in Huntington, WV. While recognizing that West Virginia, like every other place, has its problems, her perspective on the state is optimistic. “Native West Virginians are always apologizing for their state…but frankly, it’s one of the most physically beautiful states I’ve seen.”
According to Dean Mary Todd, the Founding Dean of Marshall University’s Honors College, the problem with the state’s image is that not a lot of people have been there. Whether crossing the state lines by plane or car, the presence of the Appalachian Mountains is undeniable. For the past three years, the Governor’s Honors Academy has been held at Bethany College, a small liberal arts college tucked away in the state’s northern panhandle. Surrounded by rolling hills and without a restaurant, gas station, or movie theater for miles, Bethany’s campus is the perfect example of an ideal West Virginia, except for the occasional skunk or raccoon. “We should probably advertise [West Virginia] as the country’s ‘best-kept secret,’” Todd says.
As I listen to Robison talk about his four academic minors and upcoming study abroad experience in Morocco, I start to feel a little wistful, wondering what I might have done if I had gone to an in-state school. Robison admits that although he dislikes that the state lacks in important areas like arts and entertainment, he feels that he has taken full advantage of the opportunities available to him at WVU. Within his International Relations major, he is able to concentrate on national security and intelligence analysis and work at an unpaid internship at the Open Source Intelligence Exchange.
The program LoCascio directs at Marshall is very similar to the scholarship Robison received; the Yeager scholarship offers a small number of students from both in and out of state a full-ride scholarship that includes tuition, full room and board, a study abroad experience at Oxford University, a stipend for another study abroad experience, a personal laptop, and an enhanced curriculum. “If a student gets the Yeager Scholarship,” she says, “it behooves us to make sure they never regret taking it.”
Saralyn Dague, an outspoken and passionately Irish woman, was the dean of this year’s Academy. She designed the program to challenge students’ academic, social, and cultural boundaries by organizing events and activities that pushed students to take risks, discover new interests, and expand their awareness beyond West Virginia’s awkwardly shaped state lines. During this summer’s Academy, students met with a slam poet. They visited the Carnegie Museum of Art and saw a production of The Producers in Pittsburgh. They watched a presentation on Invisible Children, a nonprofit focused on ending the use of child soldiers in Uganda. They spent a Saturday geocaching, took salsa lessons, and attended classes on topics that ranged from the physics of sports to the production of handicrafts.
However, Dean Dague’s insistence on expanding students’ horizons was undercut by the pervasive cultural and financial pressure to stay in state. Even some GHA faculty believe that students have an obligation to give back to the state where they grew up; after all, the government provided many GHA students with public education, and all with the Governor’s Honors Academy program, which is completely free-of-charge.
Governor Manchin reiterated this idea during a speech he gave to my class at the Academy on the fourth of July in 2007. As Manchin, wide-eyed and enthusiastic, explained his proposal to amend the PROMISE, students became more and more incensed, even though many planned to stay in state anyway. “And what if we can’t find a job in West Virginia? We’re not all going to be teachers and doctors!” we angry students demanded, our brows furrowed and our voices raised. After his speech, we were told to shake his hand, but many students refused, or did so with fiercely combative looks in our eyes. The next day during class, we debated our supposed responsibility to the state; none of us could understand the principles behind the Governor’s proposal. When I said that I still wanted to go to college out-of-state, our seminar leader simplified it for me: “People like you are the reason West Virginia sucks.”
A popular compromise that many GHA teachers recommend is that students remain in West Virginia for their undergraduate degrees and pursue graduate degrees elsewhere. As for Robison, he says he will definitely take this plan of action. “I’m happy with my decision [to stay in state],” he said. “I want to go to Hopkins or Georgetown for grad school, and I knew I could only afford one or the other. I knew I was going to grad school, and grad school was more important.”
Despite the state government’s obvious objections to this attitude, both Garbutt and LoCascio agree that it, too, can help promote economic and cultural growth in West Virginia. In fact, LoCascio not only encouraged but required her two children to move out-of-state for college. After all, Senator Rockefeller, the founder of the Governor’s Honors Academy, is not a West Virginia native himself — as LoCascio points out, he brought his resources into the state to make it better. LoCascio believes that is why both the Foundation and the Yeager scholarship programs offer students the chance to study abroad. Students can better learn to appreciate West Virginia’s good qualities by seeing them from the outside.
“Students need to be able to leave West Virginia in order to come back,” she said.
After coming back myself, I have to agree. While in high school, I was more like Diegmiller than Artimez; I was dying to get out of there. I hated the nights spent driving around, wishing there were something to do besides buying useless things at Wal-Mart or sitting in the Taco Bell parking lot. I resented everything from the population’s lack of diversity to the absence of art museums. Every time I spent money on gas, I looked forward to the day that I would be spending it on public transportation. And I definitely did not care about the mountains, the state’s saving grace. However, spending this summer there was surprisingly refreshing. I saw West Virginia more for what it is; it does not have as much cultural diversity as I would like, but it does have a stunning landscape, people always willing to lend a helping hand, and a great bluegrass music scene.
But do I want to live there, work there, raise a family there? The answer is still no.