Stay or Leave? West Middlesex Students Participate in Panel

WEST MIDDLESEX, Pa. – Leaving the region may be a goal for many West Middlesex High School students, but 12th grader Luke Mantzell says the reality is, most won’t leave.

“I feel like this is one of those towns that you always want to come back to,” Mantzell said. “We all say we want to leave and we love saying that, but in the end we hate seeing that we all stay here.”

Most of the 14 students participating in a panel discussion at the high school for The Business Journal’s Brain Gain program have parents who went to the same school, Mantzell said. Even his parents, who lived in Atlanta for 20 years and said they were never moving back, eventually returned, he said.

“Never say never because here we are back at the same place we started,” said Mantzell, who plans to attend college to study finance.

Nearly all students indicated they want to get away from the area, but leaving behind family would be difficult. Zoe Belcik, 10th grade, is one of the few who is adamant about staying after graduation because of family.

Zoe Belcik says her family is her biggest support system.

“They’re my biggest support system, so me moving away on my own, I don’t know if I’d be able to do it without them. I’m very independent, but I need to be able to come home whenever I need to because no matter what, your family’s more important than any job you have,” she said.

Sierra Cunningham, a 12th grader, is a young entrepreneur who has a grass-cutting business. She will remain in the area after recently buying a commercial grass-cutting company out of Pittsburgh that services 110 yards.

She secured a $10,000 down payment for the company and will pay a percentage to the former owner until the rest of the selling price is paid off.

“I’ve been cutting grass since I was 14,” Cunningham said. “It’s a big difference from what I had.”

She prepared for her business venture by spending her afternoons studying at LindenPointe’s eAcademy for high school seniors to learn and develop leadership and entrepreneurial skills.

Several students have plans to attend college, while others are enrolled in vocational studies at the Mercer County Career Center and plan on doing trade work, including electric, welding and diesel mechanics.

Bradley Fair and Caden Lewis are working through vocational education, saying they prefer working with their hands. Both say they plan on staying in the area after graduating, but may move because trade jobs in the South pay more money.

“I’m going into a trade. I can make more money because I’m not a books person. I’m more of a hands-on person,” Fair, 11th grade, said.

Marissa Pierce and Brad Fair discuss their plans for after high school.

Fair says he’s worked on vehicles for years, but wants to become an electrician. “I’ve already talked to the electrical union and I’m going to get into that,” he said.

“You get to go job shadow what you want to do and it lets you see what you’re actually going to be doing in your job and if you want to do that for the rest of your life,” Fair said.

Pennsylvania recently implemented a state requirement that all high school seniors must participate in either job shadowing or 60 hours of community service in order to graduate. Fair says the option for job shadowing for a senior project was helpful.

Lewis, 11th grade, is pursuing a career in welding and is attending the career center because he says he likes the hands-on approach of learning as opposed to reading about it.

Cody Sloan, 10th grade, says the school does a good job of not just pushing students toward college, but also provides exposure to skilled trades and job opportunities available.
He is looking to become an electrician.

“The school just wants to help you get whatever you want to do and the school’s been very helpful with me,” he said.

A resource that helped Sloan was shop class, which is where he decided he wanted to be a welder, but now wants to pursue being a mechanic. Lawmakers around the country and other advocates have been pushing to bring back shop classes.

Not carrying the weight of college debt is one of the reasons Sloan believes he made the right decision to pursue a trade. He explained that he is getting the training for free as part of his high school education through the career center and will graduate with a certificate and enter the workforce and make a decent wage.

Debt is a concern for the students looking to go to college. Several are looking into scholarships and financial assistance while others said they don’t know how they will pay for college.

Luke Mantzell says though students want to leave, many will end up staying.

For Kaiya Garrett, 11th grade, who wants to pursue a bachelor’s in nursing and attend medical school to become a pediatrician, specializing in oncology, she’s looking at about 13 years of schooling and a lot of debt, she says. But it has been her dream since she was young. She doesn’t know how she is going to pay for her education, but explained that her family is behind her 100% and they are going to push her through.

“I love children and that’s what I want to do for the rest of my life because that’s what I love and why not do something you love,” Garrett said.

Drake Muir said financing college is a big risk. The 11th grader wants to study economics and would like to pursue law school, but he admits that those seven years of his life will be expensive. He is looking into scholarship opportunities and he has been saving money from his summer job of cutting grass.

Besides future career plans, students opened up about issues they feel are important to them. None of the 14 students wants to live in the shadow of their parents, or siblings. Reputations, good or bad – seem to precede them, they said. They would like to see that change. But Belcik said, “When you have 65 kids in a graduating class, it’s like everyone grew up as siblings,” she said.

Cassie Vorisek, freshman, who is interested in psychology or becoming a teacher, said her grandfather is a beef farmer and is well known in the community.

“I want to be my own person and not Charley Vorisek’s granddaughter. I want my own reputation,” she said.

Garrett said she feels pressure from the small community of 871 residents that she and her fellow students are expected to be successful – at least as successful as your parents. How does she measure success?

“Happiness in my opinion, not money, not careers. It’s whether you’re happy and have a family that you can support yourself,” she said. “I want to have a clean slate and create something just for myself so people aren’t like, oh, your dad owns that business and that business. I’m like, yeah, but what about me?”

Pictured above: Students participating in the West Middlesex High School panel discussion were (Front row from left) Sierra Cunningham, Zoe Belcik, Cody Sloan, Dennis Jones, Colby Johnson, Cassie Vorisek, (back row from left) Kaiya Garrett, Drake Muir, Luke Mantzell, Connor Cain, Caden Lewis, Bradley Fair, Marissa Pierce and Crysta Barndt.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.