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The town of Pocahontas, Virginia, sits nestled in the mountains on the northwestern side of Tazewell County. Photo taken 5/19/08. 

DANVILLE — When Rachel Horn goes back to visit her friends and family in Buchanan County, they ask her, “When are you going to come back and be our doctor?”

Horn thinks a lot about returning home to practice medicine. She’s about to start her fourth year at Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine in Blacksburg, which has a mission of placing graduates in Appalachia.

“I feel very strongly about rural medicine,” Horn said. “It’s a special thing to provide care to people in a rural area, where they don’t have the kind of access to care that those in larger places do.”

But she’s been weighing other factors as she considers moving back to an economically struggling region. She wants her husband to be able to have a job he enjoys. She’ll have a mountain of student debt. Will she be able to make enough money to pay off her loans and be financially stable as a doctor in Southwest Virginia? Or should she look for a job with a higher salary in a more populated area?

“It’s a difficult decision,” Horn said.

It’s people like Horn a state commission is trying to lure back to Southwest Virginia. The Virginia Tobacco Revitalization Commission on Thursday approved a program to help pay off student loan debt for recent college graduates who move to one of the 40 localities in the Southside and Southwest regions and fill in-demand jobs.

The commission’s Talent Attraction Program will cut a check for $24,000 over two years to people willing to live in one of the regions and work certain jobs. Participants can apply for an additional two years and receive another $24,000.

For the health care jobs, the commission is partnering with the Virginia Department of Health, which already runs a program awarding people up to $140,000 over four years to work in underserved areas. The department’s program is supported by state and federal funds as well as a match from health care employers. The department has not been able to fund all of the applicants, so the tobacco commission will provide funding for additional people working in the tobacco region.

“We know debt is a huge burden for folks, and the reason they chase the very high salaries is because they’re coming out of school with a ton of debt,” said Evan Feinman, the executive director of the commission. “We can say, ‘We can take some of that off your plate.’”

The population in Southside and Southwest has continued to decline. Young people are leaving and not coming back. There’s a shortage of people to fill certain jobs like doctors and nurses, science and math teachers, and industrial and electrical engineers.

Southwest Virginia has lost people like Tammy Bartlett, who has lived in Dinwiddie County for about two decades. She teaches science and history to middle school students. She’s from Carroll County and wishes she could return to the region, but she’s still saddled by student debt. Since leaving, she’s started a family. She’s gotten job offers in Southwest Virginia, but she has had to turn them down because they don’t pay enough.

“When someone has college debt, we know that payment of their debt will change the way their economic planning goes,” Feinman said.

The tobacco commission’s program previously awarded loans of about $2,000, and if people returned after college, the commission forgave the loans. But only half of the people were returning, and certain jobs remained unfilled. So the program wasn’t as effective, Feinman said. The revised program will mean fewer awards, but the financial amount is much greater.

The goal is that by pulling young people into a rural area and encouraging them to grow roots, they will stay for a long time. The commission’s student loan repayment program requires participants to become civically engaged in the community.

The program is geared toward recent college graduates. While anyone from across the U.S. can apply, the commission will give preference to those who can show they were raised in the tobacco region.

Del. Tommy Wright, R-Lunenburg, said the program should help pay off loans only for those originally from the tobacco region. He said extending it to those from outside the area is “more or less saying we don’t have the talent” in the tobacco region.

Feinman said Southside and Southwest Virginia should be places people want to move to. “It’s my view that if somebody moves here and makes their career here, they are from here,” he said.

The tobacco commission will start accepting applications this summer. For more information, visit the commission’s website at weww.revitalizeva.org.

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