Each year, 33 Pittsburgh two- and four-year colleges graduate some 40,000 students — and half of them leave Pittsburgh for jobs elsewhere, according to the Allegheny Conference on Community Development.

Thanks to Pittsburgh Passport, a Conference program that launches in virtual form Thursday, Darpun Kohli is one of the ascending professionals who has chosen to stay.

“The main reason I considered Pittsburgh is the city is full of job opportunities and there’s a focus on career development,” says Kohli, 21, of Cranberry Township. “After Passport last year is when I realized that in Pittsburgh … no matter what you’re into, there’s something you’re gonna love.”

“We have a lot of the amenities of a larger city — but we have a robust variety of experiences,” adds Passport participant Dustin Butoryak, 22, of Morningside.

Kohli studied computer science at Seneca Valley High School and dreamed of going to college somewhere warmer, somewhere more West Coast. He turned down UC-Irvine because of the lofty price tag, which he estimated would top $60,000 a year, and instead followed his older brother’s path and went to Pitt. Pittsburgh’s reasonable cost of living weighed on the decision, he says.

After interning at Arconic and American Eagle, Kohli decided to stay in Pittsburgh and now has a full-time job with PNC Bank.

“I got to see things through Pittsburgh Passport I never experience before,” Kohli says. “Pittsburgh Passport opened my eyes to all of the opportunities Pittsburgh has for me.”

This year, the Pittsburgh Passport program, which is sponsored by several locally based corporations like Giant Eagle and BNY Mellon, will be a little different, due to COVID-19. Though some events might be scheduled, with appropriate safety measures in place, the initial slate is largely virtual.

Events such as last year’s big splash at Heinz Field will be replaced by online forums, roundtables with nonprofit leaders, and a student open mic night. There’s even a cooking series, with a June 22 session titled, Stir Fry Basics & A Discussion on the Racialization of Chinese Cuisine. For a full schedule or to register, go here.

For all of the bells and whistles — there are Tech Talks, game nights and forums on startup culture and science denialism — Passport is not shying away from tough conversations, either. More than one in three of last year’s 1,500 participants was from a diverse cultural background. And Allegheny Conference plans to address what’s essential for those individuals head-on.

Sabrina Saunders Mosby, president of Vibrant Pittsburgh, says she takes her mission seriously to talk about racial justice and Pittsburgh’s diverse communities. On July 8, she will help facilitate a forum titled, Connect & Converse: The Impact of Diverse Leadership.

“It’s a difficult and challenging time for all of us,” Mosby says, when asked how she would broach the topic of racial diversity. “We anticipate the conversations that will be taking place … will have much more depth and require a lot more sensitivity, considering all the dialogues we all are taking part in at this time.”

She also wants to challenge the narrative, which has grabbed headlines recently, that Pittsburgh is a less than ideal professional environment for people of color.

“[Young people] need to find a way to find people who look like them,” Mosby says. “Pittsburgh is a place where they can work and where there are communities of color that will welcome them. We want to increase the opportunities.”

That resonated for Linda Topoleski, vice president of workforce operations and programs for the Allegheny Conference. She says Pittsburgh’s graduate and talent retention rate lags behind places like Philadelphia. She wants to boost programs like Pittsburgh Passport to try to change that.

“Last year, Passport was such a great way for people to see all that Pittsburgh has to offer — it really was a game-changer for some of them. And we need to build on that,” Topoleski says. “We can’t stop trying to attract and retain talent in this area, because the stakes keep getting higher.”

Connor Murray knows the narrative. He left his native Maryland to attend the University of Pittsburgh four years ago and has decided to stay in the Steel City. His excitement for the city is palpable; he even started a record label, Crafted Sounds, to document and promote some of the region’s brightest underground musicians.

Murray attended the Passport kickoff last year and says it left an impression.

“It was really kind of about expanding horizons but it was personal because everybody was saying, ‘What do you want to do next?’” says Murray, 22, of Garfield, who today works a full-time job at Highmark. “I felt it was a value-add for the city and it was nice to see some of the larger companies collaborate with each other.”

Now, when Murray talks about Pittsburgh and its community of working professionals, he uses the word “we.”

“We don’t want this upcoming talent to leave Pittsburgh,” he said, bluntly. “We ultimately want to make Pittsburgh a great place.”

A former news reporter for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and Asbury Park (N.J.) Press, Justin Vellucci currently freelances for a number of Pittsburgh publications and works as a staff writer for the music magazines PopMatters and Spectrum Culture. He has been contributing to NEXTpittsburgh since January 2020. He lives in Greenfield.