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The Private Sector: Involving students will help us all

Tuesday, August 28, 2001

By Jonathan Rosenson

The 29 colleges and universities located in southwestern Pennsylvania bring to our region a high concentration of talented students eager for opportunities to differentiate themselves.

To submit a letter or an essay for consideration for The Private Sector, please send it via e-mail to Business@Post-gazette.com or via regular mail to Post-Gazette Business Section, Private Sector, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh, Pa. 15222. Please include your telephone number, municipality and return address for verification.

And while these opportunities certainly exist in the form of internships and community service, it seems that, despite their motivation, a significant number of students are either disconnected from them or simply not interested.

As a result, many look elsewhere for fulfillment, forming negative impressions of the quality of life in Pittsburgh.

In comparison with other major metropolitan regions, the Pittsburgh region is compelling, in part because of the combination of diversity and opportunity that exists. For such companies as Alcoa, US Airways, Bayer, Heinz, PPG Industries and U.S. Steel, Pittsburgh has provided the foundation for high growth. And more recent additions to the scene such as American Eagle Outfitters, CoManage, FreeMarkets, and Stargate help create a dimension of excitement for the future. But it apparently isn't for everyone, because every day local university graduates are making the decision to move away.

So even though Fortune Magazine consistently ranks Pittsburgh within the top 10 cities in the United States for business, it is widely reported that the exodus of young individuals from our region is due in part to a lackluster job market. And with three world- famous sports teams, multiple concert venues, an eclectic cultural scene and annual festivals galore, people still say there aren't any "fun things to do" in Pittsburgh. Misconceptions such as these, however, when replaced with facts, demonstrate that our region offers an extremely high quality of life.

So, university students in our region are seemingly disconnected from the community, leaving them with few compelling reasons to become more involved and stick around after graduation.

Aligning the public's perception of our fair city with today's reality is a gradual process requiring an elevated public presence backed with facts about what makes this place so great, and a whole lot of patience for it to sink in. And since the college and university students represent the future leaders of our region, they play a much bigger role in shaping Pittsburgh's image than one may think. The intermingling of academia, public involvement, career and other group affiliations is a key to success for many individuals, but it is a lesson sometimes learned too late.

In 1995 several young people who shared concerns about the issue of retention and attraction of young people formed an organization called the Pittsburgh Urban Magnet Project. They noticed that many were leaving the region in search of greener pastures in the form of both career opportunities and more "fun things to do." Through communication, education and advocacy, PUMP works to make the Pittsburgh region a more dynamic and engaging place to live with the intended outcome of effecting positive changes that will keep more individuals here. More and more students are joining PUMP to play a more active role in the region.

Another organization, Pittsburgh Cares, is making preparations to begin work with regional universities in an effort to facilitate involvement in community service projects. Since 1992, Pittsburgh Cares has been working with a variety of community groups and nonprofit organizations. Most of these projects fall under broad categories such as helping children, providing respite for the homebound and hospitalized, providing companionship to senior citizens, building civic pride, improving the environment, caring for animals, fighting hunger, painting and building housing, and working with people with disabilities. Creating flexible, rewarding and meaningful volunteer opportunities will facilitate personal connections within the region.

The Pittsburgh Regional Champions are a group of volunteer ambassadors charged with promoting the region. Using a grass-roots approach, the Champions leverage the region's greatest asset -- our people. As evangelists of the 10-county region, Champions aim to diminish negative attitudes that exist about Pittsburgh both around the world and in their own back yards. Student champions are a recent edition to the program and serve to improve the group's reach into that segment of the community.

The colleges and universities in our region have established internship programs in which students can participate for credit toward graduation. In some cases it's even a requirement for some areas of study. Community outreach also is present at some level within these institutions. What's surprising, however, is how few students take advantage of the opportunity that each presents unless it is a requirement. Locally, both the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University have orientation programs for first-year students in which they get acclimated with the school and their new surroundings. Making connections with such groups as PUMP, Pittsburgh Cares and the Pittsburgh Regional Champions will only serve to foster and strengthen positive attitudes about our region.

Engaging students and young people alike in the community will strategically position the Pittsburgh region for future growth and ensure our sustainability for years to come.

Jonathan Rosenson is an undergraduate in the department of communication at the University of Pittsburgh and is director of strategic initiatives for Stargate. He can be reached at jon@stargate.net.

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