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Harrisonburg is home to many jobs and internships to entice new graduates to stay local, according to JMU's 2020 Career Outcomes Report.

Another graduation season has arrived. That often comes with more questions than answers. 

With a newly acquired college degree, some may be tempted to get as far away as possible from the college town they’ve grown so familiar with. However, there’s been a surge of students staying in Harrisonburg after graduation, and they’re shaping the future of the city’s ecosystem in a big way, local economic experts said. 

Out of 2,085 polled graduates in the class of 2020, 734 — 35.2% — reported they continued living in the Shenandoah Valley, according to JMU’s 2020 Career Outcomes Report. 

The same report also highlights that more than 30 graduates were hired at Sentara Healthcare and JMU, respectively; 16-29 were hired at Amazon; and 10-15 were hired at Enterprise. Furthermore, JMU, the City of Harrisonburg and the Staunton Public Defender’s Office were all local sources of internships for 2020 graduates. 

Graduate students and advanced degree recipients also stayed local after completing their academic pursuits. Of the 422 participating graduates who identified their employer, 32 found jobs at JMU and 10-15 joined Harrisonburg City Public Schools.

Real world application

Peirce Macgill, assistant director at City of Harrisonburg Economic Development, said he’s hoping to continue the trend of students staying in the area after graduation. Macgill, a 1996 JMU graduate, said he understands the initial appeal of moving to a big city immediately after graduating.  After his time at JMU, he relocated to Baltimore, Maryland, where he lived for 14 years before eventually feeling drawn back to Harrisonburg for the quality of life it provided him and his family, Macgill said. 

Christopher Quinn, president and CEO of the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Chamber of Commerce, described the “symbiotic relationship” between the university and Harrisonburg. To make sure students are prepared to take on an ever changing job market, JMU works closely with outside parties to keep course material relevant, Quinn said. The Chamber of Commerce keeps JMU up to date with what new types of businesses are coming into the city as well as new technologies future workers should be familiar with. 

Additionally, Laura Yu Hickerson, the University Career Center’s (UCC) associate director for employer relations, wrote in an email that the UCC attends Chamber of Commerce events to “connect with local employers and encourage them to hire JMU students.”

One of the ways JMU does this is by hosting events like Techstars Startup Weekend through the Gilliam Center of Entrepreneurship, which occurred at JMU the weekend of April 8. This event aimed to give students an opportunity to pitch businesses and make networking connections, Quinn said. Macgill and Quinn both said they attended this event as a way to find and support future entrepreneurs.

 “You’ve got new ideas, entrepreneurs … If they have things they want to accomplish, they can stay here to get that done,” Quinn said. “The resources that are here for them to access are incredible.”

Student stories 

A product of these resources, along with working for hours on end in a hot attic, is Collegiate Customs. Collegiate Customs is a T-shirt company that allows students to design custom shirts for clubs, organizations and Greek life. What started as a side-hustle for JMU alumnus Chris Ashley, an economics major and music industry minor who graduated in 2017, and his brother has now become his most successful endeavor, he said. Ashley recalled seeing other members of his graduating class in the College of Business (COB) going off to do consulting jobs in Washington, D.C. Although he said he wasn’t entirely sure what he had wanted to do at the time, it definitely wasn’t that.

After making some connections selling T-shirts on the side with his brother, the two were able to get in contact with suppliers and distributors and learn what the best hardware was to use. Having come to the realization there was real potential, Ashley said they decided to make it a reality. Ashley said setting up shop in Harrisonburg was “the most logical decision.”  

Small businesses and start-ups have a great system of support from the Harrisonburg community, Ashley said. As a company that designs custom gear with college students as its primary customer base, being in close proximity to campus allows for almost every order to arrive much faster than its competitors. Collegiate Customs’ proximity to Interstate-81 also allows for their orders from suppliers to be consistently fulfilled within one day. Ashley noted the Valley’s high refugee population allows for a well-rounded and diverse workplace environment of different backgrounds, identities and skills — circumstances he said influenced his decision to start his company in Harrisonburg. 

Sydney Thier, a media arts and design (SMAD) and interdisciplinary studies major who graduated from JMU in 2018, moved away for a few months before returning to Harrisonburg. She said she felt compelled to continue her work locally because of the community’s vast networking capabilities. Due to the nature of working with multiple companies in the television industry, such as Studio Ramsey and Blackfin, Thier felt pressure to move to one of the larger hotspots like L.A. or New York City. However, she said it’s almost impossible to move to one of those bigger cities without living paycheck to paycheck.

After living away from Harrisonburg for eight months, Thier returned to the Friendly City and realized it was more than feasible to make connections in a small city, she said. She’s been able to meet artists and performers by working on local events including Macrock and the Super Gr8 film festival.

“I was able to do the work I wanted to do … without having to sacrifice a comfortable lifestyle for my career,” Thier said. 

While there are many benefits to networking in a large city for those working in the entertainment industry, Thier said, she found the alternative to work in her favor. Rather than working in a city where everyone is competing to work on the same projects, she became the go-to person for movie work or traveling shows in the surrounding area, such as Washington, D.C. This resulted in a steady stream of jobs paired with an affordable cost of living, she said. 

Though they might not have it all figured out yet, members of the graduating class of 2022 said they feel that Harrisonburg is a great place to start. 

Molly Gorski, a graduating psychology major and medical humanities minor, is waiting in Harrisonburg for the time being to see what comes next for her. Gorski said she’s optimistic about a potential job opportunity as a volleyball athlete evaluator and she’s hoping to hear back about graduate school at JMU. Gorski explained that having lived in northern Virginia before coming to JMU, she intends to find a job locally and live in the ‘Burg for the next few years. Gorski said she enjoys living in the mountains. 

“I personally love the Harrisonburg environment,” Gorski said. “I also have a longer lease on my apartment, so I’m trying to soak that up while I can.”

When students stay local after they graduate, they find more success than they would have expected in making connections with the community, Macgill said. 

“There’s not a lot of friction like you see in a lot of college towns,” Macgill said, in the sense that JMU makes a positive impact on the community. “Here, it’s really viewed as a win-win.”

Michael Russo and Avery Goodstine contributed to this report.

Contact Luke Freisner at freisnlx@dukes.jmu.edu. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter and Instagram @Breeze_Culture.