Opinion

Come home to Tacoma, college grads

From the editorial board

Kelly Sommer of Rochester raises her arms in celebration with her classmates in the nursing school for the University of Washington Tacoma graduation at the Tacoma Dome in 2012. A new program by the local nonprofit Degrees of Change aims to attract or keep more graduates in Tacoma to launch careers.
Kelly Sommer of Rochester raises her arms in celebration with her classmates in the nursing school for the University of Washington Tacoma graduation at the Tacoma Dome in 2012. A new program by the local nonprofit Degrees of Change aims to attract or keep more graduates in Tacoma to launch careers. News Tribune file photo, 2012

The No. 1 ingredient in building a successful career is simple, according to Tom Farley, president of the New York Stock Exchange. “I owe everything I’ve ever had to networking,” Farley wrote in an article for Fortune Magazine last year.

As this year’s new college graduates try to find their footing around the Tacoma area and beyond, Farley’s words are applicable. It takes more than a bachelor’s degree and a stellar transcript to make career inroads. What propels people forward are connections they make through family, neighbors, friends, and friends of friends. These relationships, in turn, lead to apprenticeships, internships and entry-level jobs.

Call it the “Uncle Joe Principle,” as in: “Oh, you’re interested in banking? My Uncle Joe’s a retired banker; I bet he know’s a guy who knows a guy.”

But what if you don’t have an Uncle Joe? What if you’re a first-generation college student? Or you come from a neighborhood where professional connections are few?

These questions concerned two Tacoma-based nonprofit, Degrees of Change (DoC) and the Northwest Leadership Foundation (NLF). Their leaders recognized that many diverse, lower-income, but well-educated students are hitting walls when it comes to career liftoff. These students have the smarts, focus and determination to succeed, but they lack networking opportunities.

To help mitigate this gap, the groups were recently awarded a five-year, $3.4 million grant to to help underserved and underrepresented students succeed in and graduate from college. The groups already have partnerships in place with several regional colleges to help students get to college and stay in college. Soon, they hope to expand their mission to lure graduates home after college – or help them stay here if they earned their degrees locally.

Over the next five years, the groups will directly support 500 Tacoma students in their transition to and through college through a new program, Ready to Rise Tacoma. NLF will target students from Tacoma, while community-based organizations in Vancouver and Yakima will do the same for a smaller number of students in those cities.

Starting next fall, applicants will undergo a vetting process which entails a transcript review, essays, interviews and group dynamic exercises. Once accepted, students will form “cadres” based on the colleges they plan to attend, both private and public. For the next two to four years, their cadres will be available for hometown support.

Eventually, DoC and NLF would love to see these students return to their respective communities ready to utilize their degrees.

Local employers would be wise not to see this as charity. Rather, think of it as enlightened self interest. It’s an opportunity to recruit top-notch candidates, a chance to elevate Tacoma’s profile by bringing or keeping some of its best talent home.

“College is assumed to be this place where (students) spread out to the wind and might come back,” said Tim Herron, DoC president. When it comes to creating favorable tailwinds for college graduates to return home, he said, “Tacoma needs to be more intentional about it.”

The big idea is to balance the scales of equal opportunity while enriching local communities with urban leadership and service.

And the good news: It only takes one generation for the “Uncle Joe Principle” to take effect.

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