Go West, Young Man, and Forget D.C.
With senior year of college comes the expected announcement of one’s next steps in life. At Georgetown University, where I spent my undergraduate career, as well as at many other elite schools around the country, it seems that at least a plurality of students plan on either continuing their education or going to major consulting firms. While one can choose many roads, they almost all seem to lead to the same urban areas: D.C., New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, or San Francisco.
In January, rather than follow the well-worn paths of some of my friends and colleagues, I chose to accept an opportunity at the Mississippi Center for Public Policy, a state think tank in Jackson. I had friends who understood the decision, and I had friends who were perplexed by it. Over the next five months I found myself having to explain and defend why anybody would want to live in the South, declining the comforts so easily found in the nation’s largest cities.
Frankly, I understand the confusion. For at least four years, our mindset as students was centered around life in Washington, D.C., a vibrant urban area. The mainstream news outlets, our social media feeds, the movies we watched, and the politics we followed all suggested that big cities were the only places worth being, because that’s where the action was and will continue to be.
However, as I packed up the UHaul and left Georgetown behind, I felt a sense of comfort. The words “Go west, young man, go west,” so often attributed to Horace Greeley, played repeatedly in my head. I was proud of the fact that I was escaping the behemoth that is Washington, off on a new adventure.
For the past 10 years, since my dad had been transferred to the Pentagon in 2008, I had lived in or around D.C., and grown quite used to the city and its people. Entering Georgetown, I was sure that I wanted to stay in the area and get involved in politics. However, over the course of four years, as the tidal wave of progressive opinion steadily beat against me, it became clearer and clearer that the values I held dear were not fully acceptable on the campus or in the city. I was attacked and belittled, not only for my conservative politics but for my Christian faith.
It took far less than four years for me to grow tired of this toxic state of public discourse. Furthermore, for many in D.C.’s young political scene, too great attention was given to developing one’s next career steps rather than one’s self as a person. Jobs often took over life, and little time was left for other commitments. As I evaluated where I would go after college, I decided that, while I wanted a rewarding job, I also wanted to find an area where I could continue to grow in my faith, to get involved on the local level, and to develop myself as an individual. I wanted to find a community in which I could become attached and build a home. And I realized that all of this would be difficult in D.C.
On campus, the relentless culture of outrage was alive and well, as “woke” activists constantly pushed the boundaries on the next issue and demanded that all stand in lockstep with them as a testament to intersectionality. In moving South, all of that dissipated. The professional outrage is absent and community organizations are flourishing. People tend to spend more time at the local bluegrass exhibition than they do protesting.
In Jackson, people care more about the church community you’re a part of than the job title you hold or whether you have an R or a D next to your name. In Jackson, “Southern hospitality” is alive and well: people know their neighbors and sincerely care about how they’re doing. In Jackson, I have found my spirits lifted. It has become clear to me that, while the politics of division has taken center stage nationally, outside the cities, on the communal level, the best of our country is still thriving.
Undoubtedly, Mississippi is not a perfect place, far from it. But this state is built on a strong set of foundational values, which have provided a pleasant sense of relief against the growing social and political tribalism that was ever present in D.C. I have been welcomed into a community. It is here that I plan to put down roots, and I would strongly encourage others to think about doing the same.
Hunter Estes is the development manager for the Mississippi Center for Public Policy and a recent graduate of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.