Some people are born in a small town and never leave. That’s my story so far.
But it’s not too bad when that small town is Athens—a university community in the rolling Georgia piedmont beneath the Blue Ridge Mountains. I haven’t found another place quite like it. It’s got a small-town feel and the amenities of the big city. All the worst weather systems skip right over it. And in just over an hour’s drive, you can get to the world’s busiest airport or a hiking trail in the Appalachian Mountains.
Athens owes its very existence to the University of Georgia, which was chartered in 1785 and spurred the development of the new city. Athens wasn’t officially founded for another two decades, meaning UGA literally shaped Athens.
It shaped me, too.
Clarke County Kid
I grew up a short walk from the football stadium and progressed through a trio of grade schools dubbed Baxter Street University. I always enjoyed writing. It came naturally, perhaps passed on by my dad—an editor. But it wasn’t until high school that I stumbled my way into an award-winning journalism program at Clarke Central High School and finally embraced my identity as a writer.
When UGA accepted me, it felt like fate. I had always dreamed of being a UGA student. Though I enjoyed writing, I opted for majors that reflected other interests. In three and a half years, I earned bachelor’s degrees in political science and international affairs, interned in the U.S. Senate and rediscovered my faith in Jesus through incredible communities and ministries.
Halfway through senior year, I married Rebecca—my high school sweetheart and best friend—at the church where I worked. When UGA accepted her for graduate school, we decided to remain in Athens for another two years—but that was it. Once she finished, I would finally get out and explore the world!
Athens as an Adult
After a brief stint in local campaign politics, I realized our time in Athens might be a bit longer. To unlock a career of purpose in public service, I knew a Master of Public Administration would be key. And with my wife in graduate school full time, I knew I needed to continue working full time. So, I landed a job at UGA and planned to participate in the employee tuition assistance program to earn my degree for free.
My public sector career began at the UGA College of Pharmacy in 2018, where my expanding role and early success led to a promotion within a year. In my two years there, I leaned on my writing, design and website management skills and developed skills in new areas like event planning, program assessment and procurement policies. In 2019, I started taking MPA classes part time with specific interests in local government and nonprofit management.
By this point, I’d seen Athens from so many different perspectives: that of a child, student, married adult, young professional, UGA employee and grad student. Each experience taught me something new. The years after college were challenging. We were newlyweds learning how to be married. We lost family members in tragic ways. And the addiction that had grown unchecked in the shadows of my life for a decade emerged to wreak havoc on my marriage—and I had to deal with it.
In 2020, I transitioned into a role with UGA Development & Alumni Relations that allowed me to further develop my writing and project management skills on a creative marketing team. Even as COVID-19 shutdown the world, my work only sped up. I managed projects for five units as our entire division pivoted, assisted in student emergency fundraising efforts and managed our team’s contribution to the award-winning President’s Annual Report. I developed and executed the marketing plan for a signature alumni event that was turned on its head by the pandemic, requiring a complex virtual program. And in honor of the 60th anniversary of desegregation at UGA, I partnered with other units to execute marketing tactics to help raise over $80,000 for the Black Alumni Scholarship Fund.
The success came at a cost. Between the isolation of the pandemic and the stress of being a full-time employee and part-time graduate student, my life became disordered. I didn’t make time for my mental, physical and spiritual well-being. And I turned to unhealthy behaviors to cope with the stress. Eventually, this led to the reemergence of my addiction. Around the same time, I was diagnosed with ADHD, anxiety, depression and a panic disorder. That’s how my 2020 ended.
My life since has been marked by a series of ups and downs as I relearn how to live a healthy life, resist compulsive behaviors, manage my stress in responsible ways and carve out time to connect with God. The spring of 2021 marked a spiritual springtime in my life as I began to feel more like myself than I had for a very long time.
The Power of Place
I’ve lived a lot of life in this little corner of northeast Georgia. My career at UGA began with one narrow focus: get an MPA. I had no idea the depth of personal, professional and spiritual transformation that would ensue in the following years. I am a blend of the childhood, collegiate and professional experiences that define my life—all of which tie back somehow to Athens and UGA. And soon, I’ll be an MPA graduate—ready to say “see you later” to my hometown.
Rebecca and I have always wanted to travel more, but we’ve been limited by student debt. That’s partly why we want to leave Athens. We want to experience the world from another time zone, another climate, another region on the map. Maybe I’ll end up working for one of my favorite nonprofits, like BibleProject in Portland or the Appalachian Trail Conservancy in Harpers Ferry. Maybe I’ll become a public relations manager for a local government in northern California. Or perhaps I’ll be a stay-at-home dad while our kids are young. Odds are, I’ll get to experience a little of everything in a bunch of different places. And that sounds like a dream.
Places are powerful—they have a profound effect on us. They make us who we are. They change us. And we do the same to places, for better or worse. That’s partially what drives my newly discovered interest in community branding—a perfect intersection of my MPA training and marketing experience. Wherever I call home next, I’m excited to experience its identity, its story and make my contribution to help make it even better for those around me and those who come after me.
During our time in Athens, Rebecca and I have enjoyed taking day trips to the north Georgia mountains. We’ve climbed Brasstown Bald, Blood Mountain and Mount Yonah. Every time, I look southbound—toward home, to my small town. Maybe one day, I’ll return and settle down here. Maybe I won’t. But I know I’ll have Rebecca and our dogs along for the entire, exciting journey.