Spreading their wings

Many young Columbians are looking East, West, South —
anywhere but their hometown —
to begin their adult lives
Monday, May 3, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 2:34 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

They are young and restless, with dreams that have grown too big for this town. After growing up in Columbia, many young adults want to leave their roots behind.

MU sophomore Brett Wessler, who has lived here for 15 years, sums it up: “I want to go out and see what’s out there.”

Although exact figures are unavailable, counselors at Rock Bridge and Hickman high schools say they have noticed a trend in recent years of more students leaving town after graduation.

Kimberly Girse, a college and career counselor at Rock Bridge, says she has seen a general trend of students moving farther away after graduation. She says a “significant amount” of students leave. Some go to Ivy League schools, or to schools with courses not offered at MU. Girse, however, says the rising number is nothing to be alarmed about.

“It’s the classic situation where someone’s growing up and has lived in Columbia for 18 years and they seek greener pastures,” Girse says. “I think it’s normal.”

Michael Wiehe is one example of that classic situation. A sophomore at Rock Bridge, Wiehe has lived here all his life. He says he would like to move south to warmer weather.

Wiehe says about 40 percent of his friends want to leave “to try something new and see some other things.”

Lasar Scott echoes Wiehe’s sentiments. Scott is a junior at Hickman and has lived in Columbia for most of her life. She says the city “can get boring sometimes.” Scott wants a career in fashion design and might decide to go to Chicago. Like Wiehe, she says most of her friends want to leave.

“They’ve lived here their whole lives and are ready to leave and get away from home,” Scott says. She adds that most of her friends want to go to “big states like New York, California and Georgia.”

Austin Mueller, a lifetime resident, hopes to get a financial job on the East Coast. The sophomore from Columbia Independent School says places like New York and Boston “are closer to the economical center.” For Mueller, Columbia’s positioning in the Midwest would not be suitable for his career goals.

Ann Landes, director of guidance at Hickman, says there are “probably a couple of hundred of students who leave.” But she also says there are a number who come back after their first year away.

“They are probably homesick or there might be money problems,” Landes says. “Or maybe they just decide not to go far away.”

While they say Columbia’s family-oriented environment was a good place to grow up, many young people don’t find it appealing for their post-college years.

“I always thought it was a great mix between my life as a grade-school kid and seeing the life of a university kid,” says Jay Michael Snow, a student at the MU School of Medicine. “But part of me just wants to move away and see elsewhere.”

The curiosity that comes with being young might be one reason for leaving.

“I’ve grown out of Columbia. I want to experience other things,” says Loren Moseley, an MU freshman in agricultural journalism. “I long for diversity, to meet people from other cultures.”

Moseley has lived in Columbia for most of her life.

“I guess I’ve burned out — I’ve become so familiar with the surroundings,” says Elie Gardner, an MU sophomore in photojournalism. “I want to move to a new city, to give me new energy and new passion.” She has lived in Columbia for seven years.

Despite recent attempts by the city to revamp the town’s image, Snow says he “is running out of things to do.” He is ready to move out of town once he gets a medical residency somewhere else.

Snow also cites the unpredictable weather as a factor in his choice.

“If I could, I would go to a place where the weather is warmer all year round,” Snow says. “Missouri can get so cold and so hot.”

Jenn Stuth, an MU junior in chemistry, believes the town lacks a social atmosphere people in their post-college years. She explains that while Columbia has college bars and family-oriented places, it has nothing for the twentysomethings.

“There’s just a big gap that I don’t see Columbia has,” Stuth says.

The degree-holders also aspire to better job opportunities — something that the limited size of the town might not be able to offer.

Crystal Morris is an MU freshman majoring in physical therapy; she has lived in Columbia for five years. She says she would only stay on if she could find a job. Moseley hopes to become a cinematographer. She says that because of her career choice, “Columbia is not the place to be.”

“If I can get a job elsewhere, I would leave,” says Wessler, who is majoring in advertising.

He recalls the time he worked in St. Louis and met a fellow Columbia resident who encouraged him to move out.

But even greater job opportunities might not be able to satisfy these young adults. The lure of big cities is also attracting young residents.

“Even if more jobs are created, I still think I would just leave,” Gardner says.

Mayor Darwin Hindman recognizes the infinite possibilities that lie ahead of these young people and encourages their ambitions.

“I think they should seek the place that suits them and get some adventure in their lives,” Hindman says. “It would be great to go out and compete, but we would love to have them back.”

Hindman says that “as Columbia grows and becomes more city-like, there would be more opportunities.” But he cautions that it should grow at a modest rate, as “we can only handle a certain rate of growth.”

Most of these young people say returning to Columbia is always a possibility.

For Kate Germain, family would be a reason for coming back. Now an MU sophomore studying photojournalism, she grew up on a family farm in Columbia, where her grandparents and mother still live. She says her experience there binds her to Columbia. “I enjoyed going down the gravel road and getting away from everything,” Germain says.

Gardner also says having family here would bring her back to Columbia.

“I would always love Columbia and always visit,” Gardner says. “Having parents here is a bonus.”

Wessler says coming back to Columbia is a possibility, especially to raise a family. “The school system is so good — it’s enough to keep (kids) out of trouble.”

At least one young resident wants to stay: Kathryn Pautler, an MU freshman in communication science and disorders.

She has lived in Columbia for seven years and says she “just really likes Columbia.”

“I used to live in bigger cities like St. Louis, and it was too hectic — there was too much going on,” Pautler says. “I don’t like that it takes one hour to get to the other side of the town.”

Columbia’s size is also a plus for many residents. “It’s not too big, and not too small,” was a common answer from people asked why they love the city.

“It’s a little more laid-back than a city, but more to do than in a small town,” Wessler says. “It’s a happy medium.”

Hindman says he is confident that even though many young people might leave, they ultimately would come home.

“I think Columbia is a great town,” Hindman says. “I won’t be surprised if they were to come back and start their families.”

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