I was recently at a conference where I overheard a couple of history graduate students from an Ivy League university complaining about the job market. This, of course, is pretty commonplace among history graduate students. The market for tenure-track jobs in the field of history is terrible.
Yet these graduate students were not complaining about the small number of jobs available. There was a sense of confidence in their speech as they talked about their prestigious advisers and the quality of the graduate programs where they earned their Ph.Ds. They did not seem overly worried about landing a job. Rather, their complaints focused more on the fact that so many jobs were located in rural communities in so-called “Red States” where they did not want to live. Their conversation was infused with the kind of cosmopolitan snobbishness that I often hear in academic circles. As I listened to them talk, I thought that maybe all those Trump voters and Fox News watchers are correct about the “coastal elites.”
As many readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home know, I have invested nearly my entire career at a small church-related college in south central Pennsylvania. I chose to work here. In 2002, I had job offers from a research university, several regional state universities, and a couple of really good liberal arts colleges. (The job market was obviously much better in 2002!). I chose Messiah College because I believed in its mission. I still do. Messiah is not a utopia, but it is certainly a place where I have been able to grow as a scholar and teacher with a supportive administration. It is also an institution that has been supportive of my wife’s vocation. We generally like it here.
Messiah is located in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. Mechanicsburg is not a very cosmopolitan place. Many of my neighbors have lived in the town for multiple generations. Some young people get out of town after graduation and never come back, but many never leave. We have all the usual problems associated with small towns. Race-relations could be better. Drug deals go down in the convenience store parking lots. The wealthy members of our town cloister in their gated communities. But this is where we decided to raise our family.
When we arrived in Mechanicsburg our daughters–Allyson and Caroline– were ages four and one. They attended kindergarten through high school in Mechanicsburg Area School District. We chose to live in the Mechanicsburg School District as opposed to the larger regional Cumberland Valley School District (with more opportunities) because we wanted a smaller, more intimate community for our kids. Both of them have thrived in this district and we have never regretted our choice.
Some folks in town who know me may think it is odd that I am writing about the sense of community I feel in Mechanicsburg. As an introvert, I tend to keep to myself. I would rather watch my kids play sports seated alone than join a crowd of cheering fans. I am not very good at small talk. I coached my girls in basketball when they were in elementary school, but I got disgusted with the politics, the ambitious parents, and the way many of those parents treated the selfless staff of our town’s recreation department, so I stopped. I have not participated as much in the local life of my community largely because of the time I spend investing in the life of Messiah College. But I have tried to serve when asked. I could do better.
I thought about my relationship with this community again as I sat in the cold last night and watched the Mechanicsburg Girls Soccer team play their final home game of the season. It was the second round of the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association’s District 3 playoffs. The girls won 4-0 over a team from Berks County and advanced to the District semifinals on Monday night at Hershey Park Stadium. They are now 20-0 and ranked 21st in the nation. A great story is developing here in small-town Mechanicsburg. My daughter Caroline plays a minimum number of minutes each game, but she has been an intricate part of a team that is making local history. She has been playing soccer with many of the seniors on this team since she was eight-years-old. Some of these girls are her best friends. Mechanicsburg is Caroline’s community. This place has shaped her life in so many good ways.
Caroline had mixed emotions last night. Her team will play again next week and, if things go well, will try to make a run in the state tournament. Yet the sadness of playing her last game on her home field with her friends was palpable as she walked across the field to meet us. Her tears were a mixture of joy for the blessing of an undefeated season (so far) and sadness that it was all nearing an end. I fought them back as well.
Small towns are good things. If you get a chance to live in one, take it.