Fighting ‘Brain Drain’: Efforts to Attract and Retain Recent Graduates

with Joe Nail of Lead For America

“Brain drain” describes a phenomenon in which young residents move away for college and don’t return to their home communities after graduation, settling elsewhere for career opportunities.

Joe Nail, Founder and CEO of Lead For America, joins host Tetiana Anderson to discuss efforts to strengthen and sustain communities by providing opportunities for graduates to return home.

Posted on:

March 27, 2024

Hosted by: Tetiana Anderson
Produced by: National Newsmakers Team

Anderson: “Brain drain” is a phenomenon where students move away for college and opt not to return home after graduation, settling elsewhere in search of better career opportunities. Hello and welcome to Comcast Newsmakers. I'm Tetiana Anderson. When college graduates leave rural America, they take more than their talents with them; they also take the opportunity for their communities to thrive economically. Joining me to talk all about this is Joe Nail. He is the Founder and CEO of Lead for America, and Joe, thank you so much for being here.

Nail: Thanks so much for having me, Tetiana. A pleasure to be on.

Anderson: You started this organization, which is largely about college students, when you were actually in college yourself in your dorm room. I mean, how did you come up with this idea?

Nail: Yeah, I did. I think it started with my own upbringing. I was born and raised in Kansas. I'm the middle of five kids. I have two public service examples in my parents. My dad works for the Army and my mom's a middle school nurse. And growing up in Kansas, I felt like any time I did well in school or sports or anything else, I was always told that success would require me leaving my community and my family behind and going really far away, whether that was to New York City or Washington, DC or San Francisco. And I actually went not just to the other side of the country but the other side of the world and did a public service fellowship in Germany. And pretty much as soon as I got to Germany, I realized that I really missed my family and my community, but also that I had a passion for helping the community and the place that had allowed me to get to where I was. And so, in college, I really tried to surround myself with other young people who cared about serving our country and serving their communities, whether that was in the military or starting their own business or returning home and to go into public service roles. But, after graduation, almost none of them were actually acting on those convictions. And so while I as just my myself wanted to go back to Kansas and start a business and serve in the military, I thought even more powerful would be to start a mechanism and instrument and engine to get thousands of our nation's most exceptional young people to go back to their hometowns and home states and become leaders in the places that they call home.

Anderson: If you can, tell us a little bit about the fallout that can happen when young minds leave the community and never return.

Nail: As I mentioned before, I think there is really this narrative that can be really poisonous, both for the young people but also for the communities, that in order to be successful it requires you leaving and never coming back. And I think what that means in practice is that any community, their most valuable asset is those talented young people. And the communities, whether it's in school or sports, will pour so much into them. And then to have them at age 18 leave and never come back means not only that you're losing economic opportunities but also that critical aspects of that social fabric are coming unwoven. And so I think that having folks go off and get an education is great, but bringing those skills back to their communities not only means more economic opportunities, better leadership, but also forging connections across rural and urban and other divides that we have in the United States today.

Anderson: Can you share an example you've actually seen of the kind of difference that someone from inside a community can make that someone from outside might not be able to?

Nail: Yeah, absolutely. So, in our very first year, one of our first fellows was named Evan Bonsall. He is from a small town in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. He was one of the first in his family to go to college. He got a scholarship to be able to attend Harvard College and was one of the first in his community to be able to attend an Ivy League institution. And rather than deciding again to move to New York City or DC, he actually moved back to his hometown and not only worked alongside the city administrator on a number of really key economic projects but actually won election to the city commission at the age of 23 and has been a public servant in his community. And I think that when someone decides that they're going to invest in a place that raised them or invests in a place where they're already connected to, they're bringing years of experience. They're bringing connections that they had growing up and they're bringing real lived experience -- experience with the issues facing that community that can be really powerful. And so somebody at age 23 serving a community that they know really well can be exponentially more powerful than serving a community that they have just dropped into.

Anderson: And once you get students into your program, I mean, what tools does Lead for America give them so that they can actually be successful?

Nail: Yeah, I think one of the things that separates our program from other fellowships is that we're creating these full-time paid positions from scratch in each of the communities. So, if a student comes to us and says, I'm from Navajo Nation in southern Utah, or I'm from Dodge City, Kansas in southwest Kansas and I want to return to serve in my hometown or home state, we actually will create from scratch a full-time paid position where they're working with a public service leader in their community. So the single biggest thing that we're able to do is really create that full-time paid opportunity to serve and lead in the place that they call home. But, alongside that, I think some of the other benefits are we provide weeks of leadership training in Washington, DC, and locations all across the country and we're also surrounding these fellows with a network of peers who are doing the same work in their hometowns and their home states. For so many of our fellows, especially those who are returning to rural communities, that can be a little bit of a lonely journey, especially when so many of their peers are congregating in the same three or four or even 10 metropolitan areas. So to be connected to a network of folks who are not only doing the same work but who are coming together over the course of the fellowship is a really powerful part of the model as well.

Anderson: So we just talked a little bit about a slice of your impact, but what other programming are you working on for the future and who will it target?

Nail: Yeah, absolutely. I mentioned at the outset that one of my inspirations for public service is my dad, who deployed to Afghanistan when I was in high school. And because of his example and because of the example of many brave men and women who have served in uniform, about three-and-a-half years ago, I decided to enlist in the Army as well and have been serving now as an infantry officer in the Army National Guard. And pretty much every time I've gone to military training, whether it was boot camp or officer candidate school, I've been so impressed and refreshed by an institution -- being part of an institution that pulls people together from across all parts of American life behind a common purpose. And so the big initiative that we're working on launching later this year is a fellowship program specifically for military veterans serving from all 50 states to be able to return to their hometown or home state after their military service, work alongside the governor, mayor, or another public service executive in their home state. And then hopefully use that as a launching pad into careers in business and political leadership in the future. So we've mostly been focusing on recent college graduates to date but we're really excited about extending that to military veterans hoping to serve and lead in the places they call home as well.

Anderson: Joe, so much to talk about here. What's the website? Where can people find more information?

Nail: Yeah, for those who are interested in learning more, you can go to, and there we have additional testimonials, links to donate, as well as additional information about our veterans program and programs to serve rural and urban committees all across the United States.

Anderson: Joe Nail of Lead for America, thank you so much for joining us.

Nail: Thank you so much for having me, Tetiana. Pleasure to meet you.

Anderson: And thanks to you for watching. As always, for more great conversations with leaders in your own community and across the nation, visit I'm Tetiana Anderson.

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