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Graduation time tests the pull of New Orleans for Millennials

Whenever I drive to the CBD, I enjoy those small banners posted along Camp Street that say things like “Enjoy the brain storm,” or, “Celebrate the brain gain.”

They applaud the city’s recent influx of young talent, a silver lining to that cloud that was Katrina if ever there was one.

At NolaVie, we’ve written a lot about the young professionals who have ventured or returned South post-K in search of careers and a way to contribute. You’ve read many of their stories – both by and about them – on this site.

But with every ebb, there is a flow, and inevitably some of those who were washed here by chance or circumstance have floated away again, often carried by social and financial currents to places where jobs and family connections resonate more strongly.

That is especially true at this time of year, when caps and gowns and commencement speeches propel young people forward into the world, and, too often, beyond the city limits.

I’ve yet to meet a young newcomer to the city who didn’t want to stay in New Orleans. Some, like NolaVie assistant editor and NOLA convert Meredith Acocella, who graduates from Tulane next week, vow to remain even without the safe haven of a guaranteed job. They’re in.

Others don’t have that option, usually because they can’t find a job here, or the right job here. Or the jobs they do find don’t pay what jobs do elsewhere, even given New Orleans’ lower cost of living.

Until we attract more corporations, or more venture capitalists, or until the next Yahoo blooms in our midst, they will drift out of our reach.

But even for its short-term residents, New Orleans has a boomerang pull, creating orbits that invariably bring many of them back into its path.

“No matter where my wife and I find jobs,” a young law graduate told me recently,  “we will eventually come back to New Orleans. It’s in our 10-year plan. Definitely.”

In my three decades as a feature reporter, I wrote time and again of people who came to Mardi Gras or Jazz Fest or college here and stayed. For years. For lifetimes. New Orleans does that to you.

Even if you’re only passing through.

And I love the idea that those who have come here but not stayed, the ones who follow their careers into the Great Elsewhere, carry bits and pieces of the Big Easy with them.

That is my consolation as I watch Wesley Hodges, who in his three years at Loyola Law School here has written cogently and copiously about New Orleans music, head for a legal career in Los Angeles.

It is what I tell myself as I say farewell to Brianna Smyk and Nick Reder, a so-talented twosome, as they take her art and writing prowess and his entrepreneurial and attorney skills home to California.

Two of my own daughters will be among those wearing caps and gowns this month, one as a graduate of Tulane’s A.B. Freeman School of Business, the other as a newly minted Dartmouth alumna. The first will be staying in New Orleans, as did her sister, a Tulane law graduate. (We, like all New Orleans parents, are grateful for that strong gravitational pull that keeps our children tethered near at hand.)

But who knows where the youngest will wind up? With the April unemployment rate at 16.5 percent for workers under 25, jobs are scarce for Millennials. Katherine’s brand-new psychology degree may well end up becoming part of some other city’s brain gain.

And that’s OK. Like Wesley and Brianna and Nick, Glen and Nadja and Aaron and Sharmila, wherever Katherine lands, she will plant a small seed of Southern-inspired spirit, one cultivated in the insouciance and passion of New Orleans living.

So, if you see someone wandering down a Manhattan street wearing a black and gold tutu, or someone turning on a boom box to start a spontaneous second line along a Florida shoreline … well, just consider it a little of what New Orleans is giving back to the world.

Renee Peck is editor of NolaVie. 





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