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Op-ed: Why I returned to rural North Carolina and why other young people should too

“Go to school and make a life outside of Richmond County, there’s nothing here.”

This sentence is one I heard too many times to count growing up in Hamlet, N.C., and I’m sure many others did as well. 

In Richmond County, success is often measured by what degree you have, how much money you have, or most importantly if you were able to start a new life outside of the county. Initially, I took the advice to get out, and following my high school graduation headed to UNC Chapel Hill, with no thought of returning to Richmond County after graduation. Before heading to college, my dream job was to work on political campaigns in Raleigh or Washington D.C., but this quickly changed after I arrived. 

There was one major problem with my dream of moving away and working on big campaigns: I hated city living. I hated the traffic, the clusters of people, and not being able to ride through the country when I needed to clear my mind. This — along with many state and local government classes with my favorite UNC professor, Christopher Clark — made me leave my dreams of campaign managing behind, and I set my eyes on local government.

It was around this time that I received an email from the Political Science listserv, with a fellowship opportunity with an organization named Lead for America. It was Lead for America’s mission to place recent college graduates in local government settings across the entire country. 

The program had two subgroups, one named Hometown Fellows, which placed fellows in their hometowns across the country, and another program named Lead for North Carolina, which placed fellows in underserved communities across the state. After researching the program more, I knew it would be a perfect fit for me, so I could receive local government experience and training before heading back to grad school to receive my MPA. I began the application process the following week, and finally in February after four months of interviews and applications, I was selected as a finalist for the Lead for North Carolina program. While my hometown of Hamlet and my home county of Richmond were not selected as placement sites, I was able to be matched with the nearby small town of Pembroke, home to UNC Pembroke. 

After a month’s worth of training at Georgetown in Washington D.C. and at the UNC School of Government in Chapel Hill, I headed to Pembroke and started work on Aug. 1. I am well over a month into my fellowship have worked on the town’s ADA Transition Plan, compiling the town’s history for its 125th anniversary in March and worked on inter-local agreements. While these may seem like average projects, it’s likely that these projects would not have been completed for months to come, and here’s why.


One major problem with small towns across North Carolina is that they do not have the staff capacity. Add in the recent impacts of hurricanes Matthew, Florence, and Michael, and some towns are years behind on much-needed projects and improvements. Town staff are having to juggle hurricane relief efforts on top of their already packed schedules, and do not have time for projects not deemed a priority. 

In just the month that I’ve been at the Town of Pembroke, I can really see the difference I am making by taking stress off of other town employees. Other young people need to follow in these footsteps, as local government is not getting any younger. Over 70% of local government workers are eligible for retirement, and no one is coming in to fill these roles. This is a major reason that young people should return home, so their once-vibrant hometowns do not turn into ghost towns.

There is also a second major problem within small towns across North Carolina — revenue. With most college graduates from these small towns moving away, these towns are losing their tax base, and in turn can no longer fund needed projects. As more and more people migrate outside of these areas, the ability for innovation diminishes greatly. No matter how much you want the town to have a movie theater or your favorite restaurant, it will never happen if there’s no one there to sustain it, and this is another reason that other college graduates should return back. 

I hope the Lead for America and Lead for North Carolina programs continue to grow and bring devoted young people to serve these areas. I also hope these programs and others like them will encourage young people to head to rural areas. I am extremely grateful for this opportunity and would like to thank the Lead for America staff, Lead for North Carolina staff, and most importantly the Town of Pembroke for believing in my abilities and allowing me to navigate local government.


Shayla Douglas is a Hamlet native and fellow in the Lead for North Carolina Program working in Pembroke.


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