Brain Drain

In today’s UChicago weekly alumni e-mail I was pleased to see one of the top links exclaim that an Oregonian had won a Questbridge Scholarship to UofC. The article in the Oregonian went on to explain Jesse Rojo’s various struggles and triumphs that have taken him from a deprived area of Hillsboro to a free ride at one of the world’s most prestigious universities. Regardless of one’s opinion on the verity of Horatio Alger narratives, Jesse’s story reads of a conscientious and self-aware student blessed with a mixture of politeness and humor. In sum a fellow Oregonian and worthy UChicago student I can be proud of.

 

Upon finishing the article, I was taken aback at the first and only comment, which read: too bad we can’t do more to keep more students like this in Oregon.”

 

This sort of reaction reminds me of sports fans lambasting players who left their local club at a young age. Here, Leeds United fans lament the exodus of Aaron Lennon, Micah Richards, James Milner, Fabian Delph, and Jonny Howson away from Elland Road to fatter contracts, trophies and more glimpses from Roy. Around the same time in the mid 2000s back at home, this kind of sentiment was very much the case, when Kyle Singler and Kevin Love showed minimal interest in signing with the Ducks or Beavers. (Raising the question: Is there a word for the sporting equivalent of brain drain?)

 

When I myself decided on going to the UofC, any backlash usually took the form of “but you’re going to be so far away” rather than “but why aren’t you taking advantage of the great—and cheaper—higher education options in the Northwest?” That is not to say I haven’t occasionally felt a certain amount of guilt for going to a city and school I had no prior connection with. However, it was through meeting such a diverse group of people (my primary reason for choosing UofC) at UChicago that I became so interested in what it means to be from somewhere and to have a sense of geographic-based identity. The conversations I had with Californians, Texans, Minnesotans, Brazilians, New Englanders and Sri Lankans in the Tufts House lounge and table, Rockefeller Chapel, Henry Crown and the 55 bus didn’t make me cling on to a hastily conceived regional caricature, as much as appreciate these stereotypes’ value when they fit, and their absurdity when the didn’t. Over time, my own brain drain story became a two-way street, and I’m very happy that my latest adventures and new sites of localism are adding even more joy and complexity to this path (the metaphor that by no coincidence was the prompt of my UChicago admissions essay). The more I’ve engaged myself and my peers in questions of identity, home and region, the more I’ve learned what Oregon owes me, and what I owe Oregon.

 

Understandably there’s resentment in a community when its best and brightest/fastest and strongest seek greener pastures. They will be missed, and at least in the short term, their ability to solve equations, conduct surgical procedures or throw a ball into a net will leave a void often very hard to fill. But in Jesse’s case, it’s a young man not just following, but actively taking advantage of the resources and training that will allow him to become an even better citizen, when he returns home representing the UofC, when he is on campus representing Oregon, and when he is out in the world, representing both.

 

 

People go where the opportunities are, and in due course, people and opportunities change with them. Welcome to the big leagues Jesse and all the best in your upcoming four years, wherever they may take you.

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