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On covering Pueblo’s Brain Drain

Graphic // Alan Ajifo, modup.net

I should have had an inkling that the brain drain was bad long before this year.

Maybe when I was on the verge of graduating high school in 2011 and didn’t even apply to Colorado State University-Pueblo because I was determined – as were most of my friends – to make Pueblo a part of my past (spoiler, I ended up graduating from CSU-Pueblo this past May). Or, maybe when all of my friends from the university’s mass communications department moved out of state for jobs last year.

Even earlier this summer, as most of the remainder of my long-time friends packed moving vans and headed north there was no blaring sign that this was an epidemic. I mean, it seemed that way for me, all of my friends were on their way to seeking bigger adventures than what was possible in Pueblo.

But, economically speaking, having a university softens any suspicion that 18-30-year-olds are leaving in droves. Pueblo managed to corral 5,000 students seeking a college education on a hill in Belmont.

What’s the problem?

It actually comes later, once CSU-Pueblo President Lesley DiMare hands over a diploma, getting those students to stay in town is tough.

During the Pueblo Economic Forum in September, CSU-Pueblo business professor Michael Wakefield made the brain drain a large part of his presentation. He talked about the workforce, which does not consist of many bachelor’s degrees, and how a manufacturing economy has contributed to many of the city’s educated people leaving.

I was sitting at the back of the room with a notebook in my lap and professors on both sides of me. If there were students there, they weren’t easily recognizable, and the millennials that were in attendance were me, a TV reporter (who left before the event started) and maybe a couple handfuls of others. There were no physical reactions to Wakefield’s presentation. The room of nearly 100 attendees continued with their soft tacos and iced tea.

But when I finally looked up the net migration numbers from the Colorado State Demographer’s Office, I was surprised. The brain drain is way worse than anybody is leading on.

Perhaps, the news was not as compelling during the lunch hour while students buzzed to the cafeteria just outside of the meeting room. Or, maybe it’s a truth Puebloans have all come to know. Your kids grow up, go to a big state school, find a life in the city and you see them during the holidays.

I can’t say the news was particularly new for me, either. I grew up with a ‘get the hell out’ mentality and my local friend list has been dwindling.

But when I finally looked up the net migration numbers from the Colorado State Demographer’s Office, I was surprised. The brain drain is way worse than anybody is leading on.

There is this gaping hole from ages 18 to 30. And the Colorado demography officials expect it to get slightly worse in its 2010-2020 projection. The state as a whole, on the other hand, shows the opposite picture. A brain gain.

There are about 12,000 CSU-Pueblo alumni in Pueblo County. The vast majority of the university’s graduates, around 30,000, live elsewhere in Colorado, Tracy Samora, the director of the CSU-Pueblo Alumni Office, recently told me.

University statistics show the majority of CSU-Pueblo students are from Pueblo County. The 2012 CSU-Pueblo Factbook (the most recent on the university’s website) shows 2,300 students were from Pueblo County. The runner up was El Paso County with 893 students.

That’s another way to look at the brain drain.

Samora, a one-woman alumni office, tracks alumni for the obvious reason of building a strong reputation for the university. While most alumni have moved away from Pueblo, Samora told me she has more than 30,000 valid alumni mailing addresses and social media has made tracking them easier. But for the most part, alumni self-report their changing information and CSU-Pueblo alumni are really good about it.

Wow, I told her. That surprised me. During exit surveys for the career office, I kept writing N/A because I figured I would just update everything when I got to where I was headed. I expected Pueblo might be the plan for the next year, but after that, it could be anybody’s guess.

Listening to the numbers and simultaneously living it is strange because news doesn’t regularly work like that. You’re never a part of the story. You’re on the outside looking in, and that usually serves as a good way to prevent conflict of interest.

In this particular instance, there isn’t anybody at PULP who isn’t where I am. Most of our reporters (past and present) are Millennials. Their friends are leaving, too. We’re all emerged in this brain drain. Outside of the PULP, we’re fighting to call Pueblo home and build lives here.

Despite being part of the story and living the numbers, there is little room for biased reporting or advocacy journalism. The ones who leave will leave, and the ones who stay will stay.

It’s not up to me or any of PULP’s reporters to tell a story that paints Pueblo in a light that make young college-educated people want to stay or create change, or on the other hand, pack up and never look back. They’ve already made up their minds, and that usually depends on the stability of a career. The numbers show that.

Near all on my interviews with PEDCO’s CEO and President Jack Rink, who will be handing the ropes over to Jeff Shaw this month, ended with talking about making a connection to the university.

Something would happen in that conversation and suddenly I was on the receiving end of questions. Rink would ask me what CSU-Pueblo students want, as I was one over the course of many of our interviews.

I think they want to leave.

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Written by Kara Mason

Profile photo of Kara Mason

Kara Mason is PULP's news editor. She is also the Society of Professional Journalists Colorado Pro Chapter president. Kara freelances for other regional publications, covering government, politics and the environment.

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