What's the future of coal country? These grads aren't sure

Updated 10:32 AM ET, Wed June 28, 2017

Chat with us in Facebook Messenger. Find out what's happening in the world as it unfolds.

(CNN)Straddling US Route 52 as it winds through the mountains of southern West Virginia, Iaeger is a town of just 350 residents.

For most of his life, Cody DeLong has been one of them.
"McDowell County is the hometown that you see in all those high school football movies," said DeLong, 22. "It's two-lane roads. ... We have one stoplight in the whole county. And the people are the greatest people you'll ever meet in your life."
A graduate of Concord University, DeLong said McDowell County was an excellent place to grow up.
But as he prepares to head to pharmacy school in the fall, he's not sure whether the home that shaped him -- and gave him his love for hunting and fishing -- will be a part of his future.
The state, and this region in particular, has been hit particularly hard -- from diminished demand for coal, long the economic bedrock of the region, to the opioid crisis gripping many rural towns.
Most problematic for McDowell County's future: People are leaving and not coming back.
The New River Gorge Bridge in Fayetteville, West Virginia, is the third-longest single span arch bridge in the world, and a popular tourist attraction in the southern part of the state.
The loss of coal mining jobs has accelerated in recent years. In the fourth quarter of 2011, coal employed 26,000 West Virginians. By the second quarter of 2016, that number had plummeted to just 12,000.
In 1950, McDowell County had nearly 100,000 residents, many of whom worked in the area's coal mines. Today, McDowell is one of the poorest counties in the country, with median household income under $25,000 and just over 20,000 people in the county.
West Virginia high school grads go to college at a lower rate than their American peers, with 55% enrollment, compared to 64% nationally.
With the future of southern West Virginia uncertain, we asked recent graduates from the region: Do they plan to stay in West Virginia to build a life and career, or do they feel the need to get out to succeed?
All the students we spoke with will enroll in college or have already graduated. Here's what six of them said about their futures -- and that of their home.

From the coalfields to Cambridge

Grace Bannister, 17
This fall, Logan County's Grace Bannister is heading to a place worlds away from where she grew up: Harvard University.
"I think there's a very large gap in the quality of life between where I'm from and where I'm going," she said.
Grace Bannister shows off her graduation cap in her backyard in Chapmanville, West Virginia. Bannister graduated this year as valedictorian of her class and plans to attend Harvard University in the fall.