WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS — The leaders of West Virginia’s two major public universities announced the next step in a program meant to show young workers that the Mountain State is the best place to live and work post-graduation.
West Virginia University President E. Gordon Gee and Marshall University President Brad D. Smith announced the launch of First Ascent Wednesday afternoon at the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce’s 87th Annual Meeting and Business Summit at the historic Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs.
“What we’re going to do is we’re going to keep our talent here by providing the opportunities for the wisdom,” Gee said. “That’s what this is about.”
“If you seek adventure, if you seek a career, look no further than your backyard,” Smith said. “West Virginia has an opportunity, and I think this is going to create an amazing program for the state.”
First Ascent will focus on connecting current students and recent graduates of Marshall and WVU to job opportunities in West Virginia. First Ascent is taking applications from graduates of Marshall and WVU.
Those accepted into the First Ascent program would locate in or around one of six communities: Morgantown, Huntington, the Eastern Panhandle, the New River Gorge, Elkins and the Greenbrier Valley. Applicants would be required to accept a job with a company that allows for hybrid or mobile work or launch their own business that remotely delivers services.
The selectees would have access to co-working spaces in the six communities at no charge, access to outdoor recreation opportunities and equipment and social activities. First Ascent also includes access to mentoring and coaching, professional development, and certification for remote work.
Gee and Smith hopes First Ascent will pause or reverse the brain drain of Marshall and WVU graduates leaving West Virginia once they have their degrees in hand. West Virginia has seen 12 percent decline in population since 1950, with the state ranking 50th among other states for population loss. Since 2020, 61 percent of Marshall and WVU grads have left the state.
“What we have done in West Virginia is we exported coal, oil, gas, but the most telling export has been of talent,” Gee said. “We simply have to make sure that now what we do is we keep our talent here.”
First Ascent is a spin-off from the Ascend West Virginia program, which creates incentive packages for remote workers across the nation to relocate to several West Virginia communities.
Ascend is a private organization with a cash offer to remote workers of $12,000, access to free outdoor recreation opportunities, and access to co-working space. The goal is to lure young working professionals from areas with high costs of living to West Virginia’s growing regions with low costs of living and quick access to larger metro areas.
“We realized this was a platform that could be used for multiple opportunities,” Smith said. “Imagine a military Ascend for the veterans who served our nation, choosing West Virginia as their forever home. Imagine nurses and teachers and inviting them in, or imagine the ability to convince our own native sons and daughters.”
The seed funding for First Ascent came about through the WVU’s Academic Innovation Summit, followed by a grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration’s Build Back Better Regional Challenge, which awarded WVU and the Coalfield Development Corp. $63 million. The Ascend West Virginia program began with a $25 million gift from Brad and Alys Smith’s Wing 2 Wing Foundation.
“This next generation is looking to us,” Smith said. “We have the opportunity to help them see that the future is right here. If they can connect to meaningful job opportunities right here, and then let’s offer them those job opportunities…let’s get creative and innovative and remove the barriers so that our sons and daughters can stay here in this state, stand on the shoulders of the giants who sit in this room and continue to build a great State of West Virginia.”