Amber Kelly teaching in her Wise County classroom. Courtesy of Wise County schools.

This was not the plan.

When Amber Kelly graduated from Emory and Henry College in 2018 with about $10,000 in school debt she knew she didn’t have time to waste. 

She needed and wanted, a good job anywhere within a two-hour radius of her childhood home.

When her mom told her about the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission’s Talent Attraction Program ― which helps new graduates pay off school debt in exchange for their commitment to work and play in Southwest or Southside Virginia ― she was thrilled. 

The program was designed specifically to attract recent college graduates to one of the 40 localities in Virginia’s tobacco country which stretches from Lee County on the western end of the state to Sussex County in the east. 

Awardees must agree to take hard-to-fill jobs ― think science, math, and special education ― and get involved in the community for two years. In exchange, graduates can receive up to $12,000 annually to put toward their college debt. 

Students who successfully complete the first two years become eligible to apply for another two years.

So Kelly, one of the first 92 to be granted a TAP award, took a job with Wise Primary School and moved home.

“I wasn’t excited to go back home. But, knowing what I know now I’m really glad I made that decision,” said Kelly who bought a house, got married this summer and is now expecting her first child.

Since 2019 the program has awarded almost 200 college graduates with about $4 million for agreeing to work in a high-demand field in the tobacco region.

These are the counties covered by the state’s tobacco commission, which was set up to disburse the state’s share of the settlement from the lawsuits against tobacco companies in the 1990s. Map by Robert Lunsford.

The idea isn’t entirely new. Vermont offers remote workers $10,000 to move to the state and in Tulsa, Oklahoma remote workers who move there get $10,000 and a $1,000 housing stipend. Topeka, Kansas offers homebuyers up to $15,000 for moving in and in Morgantown, Shepherdstown and Greenbrier County, West Virginia remote workers who move to the state, and stay for two years, can get $12,000.

TAP is unique though because it targets the counties in Virginia most in need.

“These are relatively small communities and so it doesn’t take but a handful of new young leaders to really start making an impact in the community. So, it’s our hope that ultimately this program, becomes a model for rural areas all over the Commonwealth to attract more talent and continue to grow their community,” Evan Feinman, Executive Director of the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission, said.

Chmura Economics & Analytics identified the hardest jobs to fill in the region by looking at job ads and how long those ads remain posted online. Across the region Registered Nurses topped the list. 

Because the Virginia Department of Health already offers a loan repayment program for healthcare graduates who agree to live and work in the tobacco region, the commission focused on the jobs that came next. The TAP is specifically for graduates in information security, network or computer system analytics; industrial or electrical engineering; physical or occupational therapy; speech-language pathology; K-12 public school special education; and public high school science, math, technology, computer science and technical education.

Whitney Peters had just graduated with her Doctorate in Physical Therapy and taken a job in Tennessee when she learned about TAP from her college.

“As you probably know student loan debt is real and so this is just an awesome way to help with that and I love that part of what they do with it, is to require the 50 hours of community service,” said Peters who was more than $125,000 in debt after graduation. 

Peters applied for TAP, was chosen, and took a job at Benchmark Physical Therapy in Abingdon, where she is now the Clinical Director. She said she is making less than peers who took higher-paying jobs in bigger cities but she’s also saving more because her cost of living is so low.

“There’s more to life than how much money you make and you have to live somewhere that makes you happy and I love the area, it makes me happy,” said Peters who lives in Damascus, just a 15-minute drive from work. The area is absolutely beautiful, she said, and “there’s a good sense of community here.” 

Alexis Ehrhardt, a member of the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission, said localities throughout the tobacco region “have a very high quality of place.”

“I think that’s something that’s a real strength of ours, of course, you know, there’s a lower cost of living and tangibles, but we also think about those intangibles, and what is quality of life, what is quality of place, and I think we have a lot to offer,” Ehrhardt said. 

She said the previous iteration of TAP, a scholarship program, wasn’t leading to graduates staying in the region. As a Danville resident, she said she is eager to move the needle and attract people who want to live in the region. 

To apply for the next round of funding visit: https://vtc.smartsimple.com

The program so far:

2019

Total amount awarded: $1.6 million

Individual awards: 92

24% were special education teachers

2020

Total amount awarded: $1.24 million

Individual awards: 77

23% were special education teachers

2021

Total amount awarded: $1.25 million

Individual awards: 78

25% were special education teachers

“I’ve lived here for 21 years. And what I’ve observed over, you know, maybe the past decade is this influx of people who are choosing to be here, whether they were raised here or they’re new to the area. And I think the choice is really important in how it impacts how people get engaged in their community. You know people who choose to live in a particular place don’t feel stuck. They’re often looking for opportunities to engage, to contribute,” Ehrhardt said. “And so I think what this program would do is attract those kinds of people because of that civic engagement component. And that’s what we need in communities like Danville, Pittsylvania, and Southwest Virginia, is we need people who not only want to live here but want to engage in the community, whether it’s through nonprofit board service, volunteerism, or any number of ways that they can engage outside of their profession.”

Kelly, Peters and others, consider the community involvement requirement a perk. Awardees must accumulate at least 50 hours of civic engagement — anything from coaching little league to volunteering at a local nonprofit — annually. That has to happen before the funds will be awarded.

Kimberley Archer learned about TAP when she got an email from her principal at Amelia Elementary School. She had just gotten her degree in education and was excited about changing from a career in sales to special education. 

“I think it’s a great opportunity to give back to your community to get there and help to build relationships with your students and their family members,” Archer said. … “In a small town, it’s real close-knit. That’s what I like about it. And you want to see your students, and your community excel as well.” 

Kimberly Archer with a pennant from Liberty University, her alma mater. Photo courtesy of Kimberly Archer.

Archer now teaches fourth-grade special education at Amelia County Elementary School and volunteers with the high school cross country team and the county’s parks and recreation department where she frequently sees her students.

Graduates who accepted the first awards are just now coming up on their two-year anniversary and the commission is closely watching to see what happens.

“What we ideally want is for these folks to locate in the region, grow roots, become part of the community, and then stay long after they’ve paid off their student loans, long after they’ve received their scholarship from us, start raising a family, that sort of thing,” Jordan Butler, Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission Public Relations Director said.

The biggest challenge for TAP remains awareness. Butler said the commission works closely with area community colleges to spread the word but does not engage directly with companies to promote the program. 

The commission expects TAP to continue awarding between $1 million to $2 million annually.

The program has completely altered Amber Kelly’s course in life and she couldn’t be happier about it.

“I’m close to my family, my kids are gonna know my family, they’re gonna know the area, they’re gonna know where they came from, and to me, that’s really special,” Kelly said.

Amy Trent is a Lynchburg-based journalist. Her work has appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers. She is a graduate of the University of Iowa and a member of the Society of Professional Journalists, Investigative Reporters & Editors and the Association of Health Care Journalists.

Amy Trent

Amy Trent is a Lynchburg-based journalist. Her work has appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers. She is a graduate of the University of Iowa and a member of the Society of Professional Journalists,...