By Rachel Jackson
Bath-DeWitt Connection staff writer
Sydney Ware is used to turning heads.
The 15-year old DeWitt High School sophomore usually walks around town catching people’s eyes—it is hard not to with a head full of blue hair.
In DeWitt, a city of 4,500, people are bound to recognize Ware for her hair color, and people have approached her in the past because she stands out. As her hair color has changed over the years—she deviated from her natural brunette years ago—Ware has undergone stares and scrutiny, a stand-out in a small town.
“People will know you your whole life and know everything about you,” Ware said. “It gets weird.”
An aspiring musician, actress and writer, Ware has lived in DeWitt her entire life and hopes to live in Chicago to pursue a career in writing. She said she has talked to many of her friends about prospects of staying in DeWitt.
“A lot of them think it’s really boring,” she said. “A lot of them have said to me that they don’t know what they want to do, but they’ve said, ‘It’s too boring here, I’d rather move somewhere else where there are more options and then I can decide.’”
Ware and her friends are reflections of a trend that suggests Michigan is experiencing a “brain drain,” in which young, college-educated people are choosing to leave the state to pursue more plentiful careers.
The trend can be devastating for Michigan’s future.
The 2010 census results, released in March, presented a grim picture of Michigan’s population decline. Michigan was the only state to lose population, and this decline was reflected in many cities, including DeWitt, which lost 195 people, or about four percent of its population since 2000.
DeWitt Mayor Jim Rundborg said that the loss of nearly 200 people has cost the city $430,000 over the past decade, a problem that grew worse in recent years as larger businesses closed their doors and unemployment rates rose. As college students graduate and begin job searches, they are often forced to leave the state for more opportunities.
Rundborg, who has two daughters living out of state, said Michigan’s economic situation is forcing young people to look for jobs elsewhere, but he said he was confident the future would be brighter.
“Once the economy turns around, more people will be living here,” he said. “A lot of people grow up in DeWitt and they’ll go back to DeWitt.”
Kim Garrison, who was born in DeWitt and raised two kids here, said that a small town like DeWitt is more of a place that people go to raise families after going to school, rather than launch a career. After leaving Michigan to get married, Garrison and her husband moved back to DeWitt to be closer to their families and raise their kids in a more suburban setting.
Garrison’s daughter, Deanna, a freshman at MSU, has spent her entire life in DeWitt, and while she enjoys the area, she said she understands the feeling of wanting to get out. After she graduates from college, she hopes to teach English in Japan for a few years before returning to the United States to search for a job in a larger city.
Deanna Garrison said her education in DeWitt was based on many college preparatory classes to prepare her for a career, a point that Ware does not dispute. But Ware felt that despite the education she has received in DeWitt, there is more to offer her elsewhere.
“I was born 15 minutes away, lived in the same house my whole life,” Ware said. ‘I just hate it. It’s all the same, and all the same people will be there. And I’ll go back and nothing will have changed.”
“In a small town, you’re just stuck,” Kim Garrison said. “There’s a limited population, and you’re just put into one group and that’s pretty much it.”
Though both Kim and Deanna Garrison expressed satisfaction living in a close-knit community, they could understand why young people want to experience something new.
“I’ve noticed it with a bunch of students at the school, if you’re really different and you don’t fit into a small town mindset,” Deanna Garrison said. “I’ve never had a problem with it, I’m fine here. But there are a lot of people you can tell DeWitt doesn’t suit them at all, and they need to just leave because they’ll be a lot happier somewhere else, maybe a bigger city.”
Ware and her friends would like to leave the state to go to college for what they hope are better opportunities, setting their eyes particularly on art and performance schools, something Michigan lacks. Realistically, though, Ware said, the higher out-of-state tuition costs would require her to stay in Michigan and possibly attend MSU, where she is dual enrolling in English and German classes.
Ultimately, the deciding factor is whether the state’s economy will grow enough for her to find the perfect job, but until the economy recovers and the state determines a way to encourage job growth, Ware views the out-of-state possibilities more favorably.
“I think it’s kind of a lost cause right now unless someone really steps up and does something,” Ware said. “And I don’t even know what could be done. I don’t think I could be convinced to stay, but that’s just me.”