Why They Stayed: Vermonters’ Stories of Why They Chose To Live In the State

Vermont. Some love it—others leave it. So what draws people to the state (and what makes others leave)?

These were a couple of the questions researchers with the Vermont Migration Roots Survey tried to answer. 

In this 2015 survey, researchers asked volunteers a few simple questions-- why did current Vermont residents stay in or return to the state, and why did others leave?

The survey received far more responses than researchers expected, totaling a whopping 3,692 from people between the ages of 15 and 91. 

The results were surprising. Cheryl Morse, one of the researchers and an assistant professor of geography at UVM, noted that some of the same factors that drive some to leave the state are the same ones that bring others back. The biggest factors for those who stayed in Vermont were landscape, family, appreciation of the state’s culture and community, and its small size.

“It surprised us that the cost of living, billing, and employment weren’t the biggest cost of returning or leaving,” she said. 

And most of those who left still felt some attachment to Vermont.

“Eighty percent of leavers said they were homesick,” she said. “People consider a complex set of factors. They’re very personal.” 

To get a more personal look into why people live in Vermont, NextUp reached out to a few Vermonters to see why they decided to make the state their home.


Benjamin Adler

Age: 34

College and major: Middlebury College, Art Major

Occupation: Co-founder of The Skinny Pancake restaurant

What brought him to Vermont: Working on Keewaydin Camp on Lake Dunmore, then attending Middlebury

Why he stayed: Originally, he stayed for his new business, The Skinny Pancake, which began as a food cart.

“We chose to open a cart in 2003, and the reason we chose to open a cart [was] we were, honestly, just looking to have a good time and to work for ourselves. We thought running a cart on the street would be fun,” he said. 

Today, the Skinny Pancake has expanded from a food cart into a restaurant, which can be found in multiple locations in Vermont including Montpelier and Burlington.

“What happened is that I had one semester left of college, I opened the cart, we ran it that summer. It was, like, really hard. In a lot of ways it was harder than what I do today.”

But, he said, three things in particular make Vermont stand out from other places he’s been: the four seasons, the local food movement, and the collaborative environment.

“I don’t know what it’s like elsewhere, but both in business and in life, people just care,” he said. “It’s a very collaborative environment. Other restaurants in town, they are not competitors, they’re allies. They’re collaborators.” 

Favorite place in Vermont:

“I love Mount Abe. I love Camel’s Hump, but it’s kind of brutal on the way down,” he said. “In the winter, I spend a lot of time backcountry skiing. And that’s sort of all across the Green Mountain range.”


Katherine Sims

Age: 33

Hometown: Milton, Massachusetts

College and major: Yale, Art History major

Occupation: Founder and executive director of Green Mountain Farm-to-School in Newport, VT

What brought her to Vermont:  Born in Milton, MA, Sims grew up in South Burlington. “I spent a lot of summers in Vermont, and it always was a special place for my family.”

Sims took an unconventional route back to Vermont after she left for college—a route that led her from Yale to Italy, and finally to Vermont.

“I took a summer course in Florence, Italy, and as a part of that program, I got to stay with [a] family, and discovered food that summer,” she said. “I found my way to food, I found my way to farms, and then got the chance to move to Vermont to learn more about it.”

Why she stayed: “I think there are a couple things that really attracted me to life in northern Vermont,” she said. “Maybe they all fall under the heading of ‘quality of life’, but I think, you know, there are so many different recreational opportunities, all the different seasons, we have such great food, it’s such a healthy place to live with clean air and clean water, and, you know, the small town communities where people really know each other and care about each other is very special.”

“We’re a small group across a broad area, but I think it’s a place where... there’s a strong sense of community. I think it’s easier to reach out to other people and to network and to build relationships, maybe, than in a larger community,” she said. “[You] can pick up the phone and talk with the Secretary of Agriculture if you need to, you know, without jumping through too many hoops, so I think that actually creates a lot of great career opportunities.” 

“If you need to find mentors and peers and learn from them, it can make a difference,” she said.

Favorite place to go in the state: “Yeah, I just love the creek in our backyard,” she said.


Daniel Zagal

Age: 27

Hometown: Lima, Peru

College: Marlboro College

What brought him to Vermont: “I didn’t quite decide to attend a college in Vermont. It just happened,” he said. “I first moved to California from Peru with the intention to go to college there, but then I had an opportunity to come to Vermont on vacation and I loved it so I stayed!”

Moving from Peru to Vermont, there was a lot for Zagal to adjust to. The lack of streetlights and sidewalks were the first things that surprised him.

“Lima is a big, big city, kind of like NYC,” he said. “There’s lots of art and music, nightlife and culture, food from all around the world.”

Once he adjusted to these changes, Zagal said he “realized how much I love being away from the city,” and that moving to Vermont “was the luckiest thing that ever happened to me."

“It’s so peaceful and positive.”

Why he stayed: “The most important factor I think would be that I got a job in my field of study within a week of graduating,” he said. “That was very fortunate and I got it through networking. Just knowing people makes a big difference in Vermont.”

“The trees, the smell, the view. Vermont is constantly pleasing your senses,” he said. “I would not change a bad day in Vermont for a good day anywhere else in the U.S.”


Sarah Waring

Age: 35

Hometown: Glover, VT

College and major: Haverford College, Anthropology major; graduate school: University of Maryland, Applied Anthropology and Natural Resource Management

Occupation: Executive Director, Center for an Agricultural Economy

Why she stayed: Waring, who lived out-of-state for ten years, said she always felt that she was going to return to Vermont.

“I think in many ways I always felt like coming back to Vermont was a part of my game plan,” she said. “I really loved where I grew up and I really loved being able to... be in the outdoors, be around people who enjoyed a rural way of life.”

Even in Philadelphia, Washington D.C. and other big cities, she said, she “felt a connection to coming home.”

“I felt very proud of being from Vermont,” she said. “And my family is here, and so I had also sort of always mentioned that I would move back home so that I could be close to my parents as they got older.”

“I guess it’s fair to say that one of the things I love about Vermont is that you’re not anonymous here,” she said. “We all really need each other, because there’s a lot that we have to do to keep our state running. For that reason, I think we find a high level of volunteerism. I really love that about the state.”


Sarah Coffey

Age: 48

College and major: Anthropology and Dance. World Studies program, BA in International Studies

Hometown: Chelmsford, MA

Occupation: Founder and director of Vermont Performance Lab

What brought her to Vermont: 

“I ventured up to Vermont kind of with a lot of resistance,” she said. “Driving through Brattleboro, I thought, you know, what is this? And then you drive through this little town of Marlboro and you almost, you know, the town center is the post office and the church.”

“And I thought: “This is definitely not for me,’” she said. “I thought of myself as, you know, a world traveler at age nineteen.”

“But what happened was I met with one of the faculty members there. He was also the director of the world studies program. Hearing him talk about the world—really just having these global ideas on this remote hillside in Vermont, like, I really started to change the way I saw Vermont.”


Why she came back: 

When she graduated from college, she moved to New York, living there for nearly 15 years before returning to Vermont in 2004. “At the time, I had two small kids—they were under the ages of two. My husband said, you know, ‘maybe we should rethink where we live.’”

“We were looking at where we could live, and it really came down to London and Marlboro, Vermont,” she said.

"What I like about being here is because it's small, we all have to get along," she said. "I think it's really unique and special."

Coffey said that her decision to start Vermont Performance Labs surprised others.

"I work in the field of contemporary performance, which is very often thought of as being affiliated with big cities or big institutions," she said. "So in my field, people are often surprised that I'm doing this work in this rural... community, and I think it's been really interesting and fun to push back against the stereotypes of what rural America can be, or what rural Vermont can be."


Bruce Schmidt

Age: 52

College and major: Lyndon State College, Recreation Management with emphasis on ski areas

Occupation: Vice President and General Manager at Okemo Mountain Resort

Why he stayed: 

Employed right out of college at Okemo Mountain Resort, Schmidt said he never really looked anywhere else when it came to choosing a place to live. 

“My parents were both lived in the area, and you know, I met a woman there, and you know, got married, and just kind of stayed there.”

He said he likes the pace and friendliness of Vermont life.

"There’s just so much positive, you know, living in the state," he said. “Some people will say, ‘Oh, well, Vermont is, you know, you’re in your comfort zone.  really disagree, because I think there’s a lot of things you can get from Vermont—good education, you can live a healthy lifestyle... you can have those things, but having the four seasons is something I really enjoy."