“... And I’m coming back.”
That’s kind of how I met recent Youngstown State University graduate Austin Hilt.
We were two sweaty hours into a massive April cleanup over three football fields of space, which is the backyard of the Boys and Girls Club of Youngstown.
It’s deep in the heart of Youngstown’s South Side – a world that, three years ago, was foreign to Austin.
He’s a rural kid from the other side of Ohio.
When he graduated high school, he knew nothing of this city or YSU. Most of his classmates headed to larger or western Ohio schools. Maybe one went to Kent, he thinks. No one came to Youngstown.
But to Austin – Youngstown is now home.
After three years here, he just left for medical school at Northeast Ohio Medical University. That will take a couple of years. Then some residency.
And then ... well ... that’s where we get to the quote that opened the story: Austin aims to come back if his career allows him.
YSU changed him.
“Having the opportunity that I had in Youngstown made me see how action needs to happen. If I would have gone to another one of my choices, I would have been one of 1 million students.”
Youngstown changed him, too.
“Here – what I needed to do wasn’t just in a book or on a screen. It was right in front of my eyes.”
Austin is a guy of contrasts. Loop earrings in each ear and some facial scruff make him ripe for playing bass in a band. His chiseled looks and toothy grin make him perfect to take home to mom. He pauses for deep thought and his eyes turn steely. He rambles with excitement, and the teeth flash. He’s also a good poster child for many things – a lot of it for YSU and Youngstown, but also, too, about this important period in life wherever a person heads to college.
My oldest just started college. And college is what’s filling my Facebook page right now as lots of buddies have the same thing happening to their kids.
The life event sends many of us searching for models, comparisons, inspirations, etc. It’s a search no different than when we held up a photo of Derek Jeter or Wayne Gretzky when they first picked up a sports item at age 7.
Or when they picked up the guitar, and we held up a photo of Slash. Or when we showed them that “Harry Potter” was really just a lady in England who liked to make up stories – but really lucrative ones.
Each example served as a chance to say “You, too, can be ..”
That’s kind of why I grabbed onto Austin’s story.
YSU was an obvious first look for my son, and when it had the major he wanted, it was a no-brainer choice.
A friend asked if I was concerned that staying home would lessen the life experience. I said I’ve lived in five unique cities, and I’m a believer that you make great experiences where you are. And I’m a believer in Youngstown, the region and the university.
So while I believed YSU would work, it was great to see the impact of the school and city on a rural guy like Austin.
“Thirty-five percent of who I am is because of my campus life; 65 percent of who I am is because of what I did in the community,” said Austin. “I reached out, and they reached right back at me and kind of pulled me right in.”
The places he engaged read less like a college resume and more like a United Way charity list.
Austin’s YSU resume includes: Dorothy Day House for the impoverished, OH WOW! children’s museum, Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corp., YSUscape, Lake-to-River Food Cooperative, Youngstown Business Incubator, St. Elizabeth Youngstown Hospital, Boys and Girls Club, Wick Park Neighborhood Association, Northside Farmers Market, Idora Farmers Market and the Downtown Economic Action Group.
Austin cites these efforts with the ease of listing off craft beer flavors.
“It’s like I stopped going to school and I started being part of some real, tangible goal,” said Austin. “I’m different in the way I act. I had a lot of thoughts. I just didn’t put them into action. Having the experience in Youngstown taught me how [action] needs to happen.”
There’s an extended video of Austin from our interview. It will be on the Vindy Facebook. I believe it’s a must watch for any YSU student and for any family looking for a college version of Slash or Jeter or J.K. Rowling.
I asked one thing he’d do over, and Austin didn’t flinch in his answer: He should have done all of this sooner. The first third of his campus life was being a typical dorm-and-books student.
I asked Austin to describe who Austin Hilt was before Youngstown and who he is now.
“Austin Hilt was more concerned about his own success than much of anything else. I was aware, but it wasn’t real.”
And now ...
“Austin Hilt is a passionate adult – someone who wants to be a change-maker.”
His eyes grow still and he slowly delivers:
“Austin Hilt is a doer.”
Then he seems to realize the irony that such a simple word – doer – sums up the complexities of medical school, leaving home, hours of homework, new relationships, helping the impoverished, cleaning neighborhoods, and so much more.
And he smiles and cracks a wide laugh.
“Yeah – Austin Hilt is a doer.”
Todd Franko is editor of The Vindicator. He likes emails about stories and our newspaper. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He also blogs on Vindy.com. Tweet him, too, at @tfranko.