In the next few weeks, hundreds of thousands of students will be heading back to universities for a new term. Despite what you’ve heard, this is an overwhelmingly hardworking, focused and determined generation in this instructor’s experience.
by Keith Dickinson
IF YOU WANT TO GET AN OP-ED PIECE PUBLISHED TOMORROW, or get moved to the “next caller” status on talk radio, or get a hundred thousand likes on a blog post, the answer is easy. Just write a screed about how today’s students are ungrateful, lazy, unmotivated and totally unprepared for the real world.
This cohort of the damned is, of course, to be compared unfavorably with the students of the writer’s generation. These students–the writer included, of course, were prodigies of accomplishment and maturity, the likes of which this unfortunate world will never see again.
Sometimes these pieces are written by instructors, who at least have some context for their comments, and I respect their viewpoint, even if I don’t agree with sweeping generalizations of any kind.
Most of the time, though, the writers haven’t had much,if any recent experience on the campuses of today. They come across as going all Gran Torino on annoying kids who listen to their music too loud (even if it’s with ear buds) and sometimes cut across their lawns
This is not that kind of piece.
I’ve been teaching in universities around the U.S. for over 25 years. Clearly, a lot has changed in the world and in college during that time. For the most part, the bell-shaped distribution of student achievement looks pretty much the way it did back when I first enrolled in college.
How long ago was that? The drinking age was still 18 and lots of students smoked cigarettes; there were ashtrays in the hallways; a few profs even smoked in class, although they weren’t supposed to.
Today, you can easily count the few smokers, since they’re outside the buildings, usually 50 feet away. I would guess that alcohol continues to be consumed, but it’s not as socially acceptable to be roaring drunk in public, as it was in the 1970’s and 80’s. More students seem to be consuming water and energy drinks; it’s hard to pull all-nighters or to get through three exams in one day with a hangover.
So, overall, these students are more focused. They have to be. Virtually all my students in the last five years have worked at least one job, sometimes two or three–and carried a full class load.
With a few exceptions, they don’t want to waste any time finishing their studies so that they don’t have to take out any more loans than necessary. They’re acutely aware of the debt burden they’re carrying and don’t want to add to it if they can help it.
One student I encountered was working three jobs and taking only one or two classes a term. “It will take me longer to finish school,” she told me, “but I don’t want to graduate owing a lot of money.”
Yes, the job market is tough for everyone, and especially so for recent graduates. But that’s not the students’ fault. I do know they take their job search very seriously–and yes, I see them in suits and dresses on interview days.
And yes, they are constantly checking their smartphones and tablets, but these tools let them study just about anytime and anyplace–they’re not just using them for Snapchat, Facebook and Candy Crush. In my day, we could stay in the library until it closed or haul a bunch of books home–but we couldn’t access the library 24/7, or research databases and libraries around the world any time we wanted.
For today’s students, iPads and smartphones aren’t toys–they’re learning tools.
I said the distribution of student achievement looks pretty similar to my generation’s–with one major exception. There are now more high achievers, and it’s not just grade inflation. I’m speaking of men and women who are running their own businesses, do relief work in Africa and Latin America in during the summer and who still maintain a high GPA. And these students generally don’t whine about grades; they get the job done.
Every generation and every graduating class has its stars. This generation has superstars.
Yes, there are some students who seem lost or who still finding their way, just as there were in my day. They are, of course, still young–19, 20, 21.
But so many are veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan–if you want to impressed by today’s students, take a look at these men and women. One was a retired Army sergeant who re-enlisted in 2003 and served seven more years. He was over 50.
I had one young woman who had won a Bronze Star in Afghanistan (I only learned about her award when another student mentioned it; the woman herself never brought it up.)
Or there was the Haitian student who changed her field of study from global business to medicine, after the 2010 earthquake so she could go back to Port-au-Prince and better assist her father, a doctor with relief efforts.
My youngest student has been 17; the oldest was admitted to being somewhere in his 70’s, but he was determined to be the first in his family to graduate from college.
These students–and many, many others–have each inspired me in his or her own way. I’d like to think that my graduating cohort was work-oriented; many of us were veterans or were going to enter the armed forces. (Yes, there was a war on back then, too.)
But I didn’t know anyone who was running his or her own business at 20, even a side enterprise.
Virtually every student I’ve talked to in the last half-decade either has one (or more) businesses or plans to start one–even as they seek full-time employment. But unlike my peers, they don’t see an outside job after graduation as a lifetime career. “I’m going to get as much experience as I can,” one student told me, “but I don’t see myself spending 30 years at the same place.”
I’m part of the generation that was gobsmacked by the economic meltdown (and all the recessions before that). We bought into the promise that if we only kept our noses down and worked really, really hard, our employers would take care of us until retirement age.
Today’s generation of students know they can only count on themselves and they’re mapping out their studies and career plans accordingly.
Yes, there will always be some bad actors in any generation; they get the headlines and the blog posts.
These few students are far outnumbered by the incredibly hardworking men and women that I’m privileged to teach today.
I’m confident that the future is in far better hands than many people would have us believe.