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Baltimore through student eyes [Commentary]

When my family and I moved to this region in the late 1970s, we were struck by how many people made a sharp distinction between "the City" and surrounding counties.

In today's global society, the boundaries blur. I hear UMBC students from Moscow to Mumbai ask others where they are from, and local students say, with pride, that they are from Baltimore, whether they grew up in the city neighborhoods of Charles Village and Patterson Park or the nearby communities of Glen Burnie and Towson. Our students feel connected to a large, vibrant Baltimore region with strong cultural institutions, exciting career opportunities, thriving night life and residents passionate about solving social problems. They are also excited about increasingly strong connections across the Baltimore-Washington corridor.

Baltimore's vitality helps to attract students to our broad range of two- and four-year colleges and universities. Whatever fields of study students want to explore, they will find strong faculty and programs in the region's academic institutions.

At the same time, campuses generate talent, energy and expertise to fuel the region's growth and build on its strengths. Baltimore ranks third nationally on the "metroversity" scale — a measure of the economic impact of student enrollment, research funding and job creation — just after Boston and Raleigh-Durham, and ahead of Philadelphia and Seattle. In fact, Maryland is among the best-educated states in the nation, and our public officials continue to invest heavily in education.

Today, many students who attend Baltimore's colleges — about 38 percent — plan to stay here after graduation. We should work to increase this number. Research from CEOs for Cities shows that a 1 percent increase in the number of college graduates in our region would lead to $2 billion in economic growth.

While many UMBC graduates go on to graduate and professional schools, three-quarters of those who immediately enter the workforce take jobs in Maryland. Corey Fleischer is one example. After graduation, he went to work at Lockheed Martin, where he's now a senior mechanical engineer. He's also an inventor who demonstrated his skills to a national audience this past summer by winning the Discovery Channel's "Big Brain Theory" engineering competition. Now he shares his creative energy with the community: Working with a fellow competitor, he recently established the Baltimore Foundery, a downtown Baltimore "makerspace" for artists and engineers across the region.

Graduates like Mr. Fleischer enhance the region's vitality. How do we keep more of them here?

It is critical that we expand opportunities for students to engage with the community through internships and volunteer opportunities. One model to consider is in Massachusetts. The MassTech Intern Partnership links public and private sector investments to provide stipends for student interns working in small to mid-sized technology companies. A similar program here would help students across majors develop valuable skills while also helping employers meet workforce demand.

As we increase job opportunities for college graduates in Baltimore, we cannot forget those residents who need training outside the traditional college setting — from completing GEDs to apprenticeship programs. We must continue to extend the role colleges and universities play in addressing urgent social challenges.

Already, many of the region's campuses are deeply engaged in their communities. For example, the Shriver Peaceworker Program, based at UMBC, serves returned Peace Corps volunteers attending graduate programs at a consortium of institutions, including Johns Hopkins, University of Maryland Baltimore and UMBC. While completing their degrees, these students work with such groups as the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore and Healthcare for the Homeless. It is particularly compelling that while less than a quarter of Shriver Peaceworker Fellows are from Baltimore, more than half remain here after graduation.

The more we embrace our identity as a college town, the more we recognize that we are all connected to a Greater Baltimore and to the Baltimore-Washington corridor, the more we will all thrive. We must know our strengths, and we must talk about them. The thousands of students who call Baltimore home already do.

Freeman Hrabowski is president of UMBC. His email is hrabowski@umbc.edu.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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