Caroline Thornton enrolled at Baylor University despite Waco, not because of it.
The Grapevine native grew up visiting here with her Baylor alumni parents to watch the homecoming games, which the Bears usually lost. She wasn’t impressed with Waco then.
Through her first couple of years as a student she thought of it as high-crime, high-poverty and just plain boring — an impression many of her friends shared, the Baylor senior said.
“There was this culture at Baylor that for so long, Baylor ignored Waco and promoted the Baylor experience,” Thornton said. “Which I get, but it was so much that you didn’t step outside Baylor, except to go to a few restaurants.”
A new community effort is aiming to change those perceptions by persuading local college graduates to settle here and contribute to the economy and civic life of Waco.
Prosper Waco’s CampusTown Waco initiative aims to connect college students to jobs, internships, recreation and service opportunities — in short, to get them to fall in love with Waco.
Count Thornton among the already smitten. She is working a volunteer job at the Cooper Foundation and hoping to find a job in Waco when she graduates in May.
Thornton said her attitude about the city took a pivot on her 21st birthday. That day in summer 2014, she was feeling down and alone with her friends out of town. With nothing else to do, she decided on a whim to stop and talk to a lower-income neighbor close to her apartment off La Salle Avenue.
“There was an older lady out mowing a patch of grass,” Thornton said. “I turned around and I asked her if I could help mow. I found she lives in a house with a son and daughter who’s blind.”
The family had no transportation, so she took them out to the park and to H-E-B, the first of many errands together. Suddenly, she began to see opportunity everywhere for involvement. Thinking about the struggles of families in the inner-city “food desert” without easy access to a grocery store, she wrote a letter to the Trader Joe’s chain. She’s active in her church.
And she said she’s seeing other Baylor students get Waco fever.
“There’s something in this city that gives me so much fulfillment and purpose,” she said. “We, as millennials who grew up in the suburbs, were not taught how to love where we live. . . . If you’re truly invested in a place, why would you want to leave? You want to see it flourish.”
Leaders of CampusTown Waco say that kind of personal investment in the community is what keeps graduates here, at least as much as jobs or entertainment options.
Kristyn Miller, a Baylor senior who is leading the effort for Prosper Waco, said attitudes about Waco are changing on campus.
“More and more people say they’re interested in Waco post-graduation,” Miller said.
Her own sampling of 59 Baylor students found that 20 would definitely consider working in Waco after graduation if there were career opportunities, while another 14 said they might.
Gathering of leaders
The effort kicked off last week with an organizational meeting, bringing together officials from Baylor, McLennan Community College and Texas State Technical College, as well as the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce, the city of Waco, local employers and others. Those leaders will work on strategies in the coming months for retaining talented young people, with Prosper Waco as the convening organization.
CampusTown has a working group devoted to employment, called Work Waco; one devoted to civic and volunteer engagement, called Serve Waco; and one devoted to recreation and entertainment, called Love Waco.
Among the participants is Kris Collins, a Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce senior vice president for economic development.
She said the chamber already has identified retention of more college graduates and young professionals as an important goal. The chamber is working with the three higher education institutions to develop an internship program with more than a dozen local businesses, with internships starting this summer.
Collins said the chamber also is looking at how to increase the number of professional jobs available to college graduates by bringing in new firms or helping local firms expand.
“Developing professional jobs is a target industry,” she said. “We have a really strong professional services sector, but we need more of those jobs. . . . First, we have to be able to show that we have the infrastructure and the workforce.”
She said the chamber also has just hired a recent Baylor graduate, Jake Cockerill, to serve as manager for entrepreneurship and innovation, with an eye to helping young people start their own businesses.
“There is a lot of interest (among recent graduates) in starting their own businesses,” Collins said. “The great thing about millennials is that if they don’t see an opportunity out there, they’re going to create that for themselves.”
Prosper Waco leaders say preventing the brain drain of the college-educated from Waco helps the whole community. The broad-based organization aims to improve education, health and financial security, with the goal of improving median income by at least 10 percent.
An in-depth economic development study in 2014 by the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research found that Waco was not taking full advantage of its status as a higher-education hub with some 30,000 students at three institutions.
“Evidence suggests . . . that many of their graduates move elsewhere to get better-paying jobs, and the presence of these institutes has not attracted many employers seeking high-skilled workers,” the study found.
The Upjohn study found that Waco workers with bachelor’s degrees on average had incomes in the mid-$40,000s range in 2012, while those with associates were in the high $20,000s and those with a high school diploma or less earned less than $20,000 a year. But only about 14 percent of workers had a bachelor’s degree.
The study also found that salaries in some professional job categories, such as graphic designers, industrial production managers and computer systems analysts, were lower in the Waco area than in Texas as a whole.
Nonetheless, professional employers often have a hard time filling jobs even when the pay is good, said Mayor Malcolm Duncan Jr., who is involved in the CampusTown Waco effort. Duncan said he recently talked to a local claims adjusting firm that had a hard time filling a position that could have paid a recent graduate more than $70,000 a year.
He said local career opportunities seem not to be on the radar for many college students.
“There needs to be a focus on how we increase the educational connection to employment opportunities,” Duncan said.
Prosper Waco officials said information on how many graduates remain in Waco is incomplete, but they are still researching that question.
Miller said Baylor alumni records show there are some 11,200 Baylor graduates living in the Waco area, including nearly 6,000 who have graduated since 2000. But, those numbers include an unknown number who are in graduate school at Baylor.
MCC’s University Center, which has about 1,300 students studying with Tarleton State University or Texas Tech, estimates that 85 percent of its graduates remain in the county after graduation.
Miller said CampusTown aims to ensure not only that Waco has good professional jobs but also a good quality of life, with plenty of things to do and ways to get involved. If those efforts are successful, it will make Waco more attractive, not just to local graduates but to educated 20-somethings in general.
That would include people like Jason Amayun, 28, a financial planner who moved here two years ago on faith. While his reasons for coming to Waco were unique, his reasons for staying are the same as Thornton’s: the sense that he could make a difference here.
The son of missionary doctors, Amayun had spent his life all over the globe — Finland, Michigan, West Africa, then the Chicago area, where he got his degree in philosophy and political science at Wheaton College. A member of Chicago’s Antioch Community Church, he accepted the opportunity to move to Bangalore, India, as a missionary and businessman.
While wrapping up his time in India, he had a series of dreams about Waco, home of Antioch’s “mother church,” which he had visited once, and he decided to buy a one-way ticket here.
“I did not expect to end up in Waco,” Amayun said. “I never saw myself living in a city of less than 1 million people. . . . I had no job in front of me.”
In Waco, he continued to work as a consultant for Indian companies, working with his laptop from coffeehouses such as Dichotomy Coffee & Spirits. That’s where he met Joshua Davis, who offered him a job at his financial planning firm, Fountainhead Resource Group.
Having lived mostly in big cities, Amayun said he was struck by how easy it was here to forge relationships, even at the coffee shop. He found service opportunities, such as a book club at Provident Heights Elementary School, and networking opportunities through a young professionals group. He was even able to sit down with City Manager Dale Fisseler and other local officials to talk about Waco’s needs and opportunities.
“To be able to meet with them and interact with them in a real way was very appealing,” Amayun said. “There’s a richness of relationships here. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
He said Waco’s recreational and social activities could be improved, but it doesn’t have to offer big-city glamour to attract young adults.
“Honestly, I love being in Waco,” Amayun said. “People from Waco put Waco down. It’s real easy to look at the flaws in a place and ignore things it does have. Waco has a hardworking population that wants to see the city grow. It’s not often you’re able to help build something like that.”