The Colgate Scene
January 2005

Millennials thriving

Around 9 p.m. on a Saturday night in mid-November, a group of juniors gather for a laid-back game of Scrabble. "A good number of us have gotten in on the fun," said Krissy Williams (far left), noting that a group organizes Scrabble games via e-mail fairly regularly, at the Barge Canal Coffee Co. in Hamilton or in students' rooms. "Anyone who comes to my apartment is legally bonded to playing with me," she quipped. [Photo by Aubrey Graham '06]

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They're conventional. They're confident. They're special. Sheltered. Pressured. Achieving. Team players.

They're also technologically savvy. Social. Brand-oriented. Respectful of authority.

Today's Colgate students are the first wave of what many have dubbed the "Millennials," who, according to generational theory gurus Neil Howe and William Strauss (Millennials Rising), are different than "any previous youth generation in living memory. They are more numerous, more affluent, better educated, and more ethnically diverse." And, many experts both nationally and on campus say, Millennials exhibit many positive social habits that defy the traditional wisdom about what makes young people tick.

College-age Millennials were born in the Reagan era, children during the first Gulf War, teenagers when the Columbine massacre occurred. This year's seniors had just arrived at Colgate when the United States was attacked on September 11, 2001. They've grown up in an era in which instant gratification and individual choice are the rule, not the exception; when the stigma of seeking psychological or personal counseling was overcome; and when the globe shrank to the point where everyone can "feel free to move about the country" -- or the world -- more than ever before.

As with any generation, although individuals in their own right, they are products of their environment and those who have nurtured them through it. And now that they have taken the major step toward independent adulthood -- going to college -- the characteristics of their generation have manifested themselves in many fascinating ways.

Through a series of informal surveys, interviews, and other queries, the Scene sought to take a broad-strokes look at today's generation of Colgate students, their interests and priorities, trends, fads and fashions, and how the university meets the challenges and opportunities of supporting and fostering their development during their time on campus.

Smaller sphere of influence
Although the Millennials' geographic world is much broader than that of previous generations thanks to 21st-century global society, their sphere of influence has become smaller. In a survey of Colgate's Class of 2006, 33 percent named one or both of their parents, rather than icons of pop culture or historical figures, as their heroes.

That students today have closer relationships with their parents may be influenced by the smaller size of families, as well as national incidents like Columbine, which have led families to become more protective. Many are likely to actually identify a parent as their best friend.

"I really feel I am best friends with my father," said sophomore Jeff Smidt. "I do think both of my parents are very protective of me and want what's best for me."

And while LouAnn Matthews, assistant director of residential education, sees parental upbringing as one reason why students today "are more confident," that closeness can also make it hard for parents to let go of their children when they go to college.

Administrators report a significant increase in parental involvement with the daily lives of their sons and daughters in recent years. Alan Glos, associate dean of administrative advising, who has worked at Colgate since 1973, calls this a "mixed blessing." While parental support is extremely important, he and his colleagues find that students having conflicts are more likely to turn to their parents than to figure out how to work them out on their own -- and that parents have a tendency to step in too soon.

Technology that allows people to stay in touch more frequently has had a direct impact on that.

"Very often, ten minutes after a student leaves my office, I receive a phone call or an e-mail from mom or dad wanting to intervene or follow up on the situation," said Raj Bellani, dean of the sophomore-year experience.

"At the extreme," Glos explained, "the student checks out. Some parents are not letting their students interact with their environment, make a mistake, and learn from this experience. I say that with empathy as a parent of a college-bound eighteen-year-old myself. But when you talk to a parent wanting more information and you explain that we are trying to foster growth and independence on the part of their son or daughter, they understand. And we encourage students to keep their parents informed."

Having a closer sphere of influence also seems to have resulted in a more polite generation, who have been brought up to respect experts and those in authority. Glos's comment that this is "a very nice group of students" is echoed over and over. "Even when I am interacting with them on heavy topics, they are attentive and respectful," he said. There has even been a resurgence of students calling adults "Mr." or "Dean" rather than by first name.


Part of the tethered-to-the-cell-phone culture, Kevin Meehan '05 fields a call while working in the opponent's box during a women's hockey game. [Photo by Timothy D. Sofranko]

Programmed, team-oriented
Having grown up in the era of the soccer mom and play dates, students come to campus accustomed to virtually every hour of their day being filled by structured activities and pressured to achieve. That kind of childhood has produced several characteristics in today's college students.

"For one, this generation has lost a sense of pure play," said Beverly Low, dean of first-year students. "They come to college expecting that events are going to be planned for them. What we do is steer them back to doing it for themselves by saying, `we're going to give you more freedom.'"

"We provide mentorship to help them learn how to manage their own organizations and plan their own events," explained Corey Landstrom, director of the Center for Leadership and Student Involvement (CLSI). Those are skills they'll be able to take with them and use in life and work when they graduate, he said.

Overprogramming also contributes to some students' lack of conflict resolution skills.

"So much of what they did as children -- youth hockey or soccer, dance class -- was done under adult supervision," said Low. "In addition, a large percentage of our students come to college never having had to share a bedroom. They don't develop the social skills they would have picking teams in the neighborhood or working out space conflicts with their siblings. We have students who can't negotiate a roommate conflict -- even when it's a minor issue, they come to us to ask us to solve it."

"Our focus is on helping students learn how to negotiate those issues and coming out in a better place," explained Sue Smith, director of residential education.

Matthews observes that students have also been pressured to succeed: "They've been raised to feel as though success is the ultimate goal. They really like to have a certain amount of structure in their lives." After being so focused on achievement in high school, building their activity resumes for college applications, they tend to pack their schedules full when they get to college.

"Colgate students get hyper-involved," said James DeVita '00, residential education coordinator. "They're busy with schoolwork, and they play hard, whether that means sports, or leadership activities, or going out. Whatever they do, they do it all the way and stay busy and active."

"Their day starts early and ends late, and most of those hours are taken up by some structured activity," which is sometimes bothersome to him, said Glos. "They don't have time to contemplate what's going on."

"We want students to be intentional and purposeful. We want to get students to do fewer things but do them in depth," said Adam Weinberg, dean of the college, "so they can really talk about what they're doing, why they chose to do it, and what they get out of it."

In their activities, Millennials exhibit a new sense of egalitarianism. "We've noticed their desire to work as teams or committees, rather than in hierarchies," said Monica Nixon, assistant director of CLSI. "In some ways, it makes it challenging to have a point of contact who can be a final decision-maker. In other ways, this style of working supports the philosophy of shared leadership that we try to convey."

Smidt agrees on the latter point. "At our training last fall, the first thing that Student Government Association president Ram Parimi told us was, `we are an executive board first and our positions second,' which is the reason why we've succeeded so well this past semester," said Smidt, a member of Phi Delta Theta who has been communications director for the SGA and is applying the same principle as new general manager of WRCU.

To help students learn elements of good leadership, the Center for Outreach, Volunteerism, and Education offers a program that tackles particular subjects such as "how to inspire a shared vision, how to bring people along, and what kind of experiences they are looking for," said director Marnie Terhune.


A variety of interests were represented during Action Day on the Quad, sponsored by the Progressive Student Network and the COVE, to provide members of the campus community with information about particular political issues facing the United States in preparation for the upcoming election. [Photo by Timothy D. Sofranko]

From entitlements to responsibility
"I'm very fond of the younger generation," said George Hudson, professor of English, who has taught at Colgate since the 1960s. "One thing I like so much is that they have such eager faces. I love to teach them; they are always responsive, writing notes to me outside of class about the assignments. They are remarkably open, and really smart."

At the same time, Hudson observed, "The faculty does complain that these kids feel entitled to something. As a senior professor, I ask, `Would I have ever gone into my professor's office demanding the professor elevate my grade, based on how much my parents pay for me to go to school?' Today, that happens all the time."

Many wonder whether the Millennials' more sheltered, protected upbringing makes them less capable of responding well to challenge. For example, Hudson says, he has found that "when I give a B it means, `I think you can do better.' But if I don't give them an A right off the bat, they sort of collapse. I have a feeling that they think that the grade is a reward for being bright rather than a function of merit, as if what is evaluated has more to do with who they are than what they do. That perplexes me pedagogically."

Citing residential and extracurricular programs that underscore classroom experience, Weinberg said that the staff works to move conversations and focus beyond achievements and entitlements to education. "Our task is to capture the educational moments to help students develop the skills and habits they will need to lead successful lives as Colgate alumni."

Well-being
In a nationwide survey, 81 percent of college mental health service directors reported an increase in students with serious psychological problems compared to five years ago. An increasing number of students arriving at Colgate have been involved in mental health treatment, said Mark Thompson, director of counseling and psychological services, and 25 percent of those who sought counseling last year were taking some kind of antidepressant or psychostimulant drug for conditions such as attention deficit disorder. In the past few years, Thompson and his staff have had to re-tool their counseling schedule in order to accommodate a huge increase in visits to the center.

Thompson attributes much of the increase to the inherent pressures students feel to succeed as well as a society that encourages kids to grow up sooner and that looks for quick fixes. "When you look at pop culture, what's on television and in the movies," he said, "children are exposed too early to images of sex, alcohol usage, etc. And this is a generation of students and parents that are looking for quick answers. Medications are turned to much more quickly than I think they should be, and that often prevents people from pursuing more long-term treatments such as talk therapy."

On the positive side, "society is more open, and it's less of a stigma to ask for help, so that we can get at issues before they get too bad," said Thompson.

Technological influences
Technology is ubiquitous in students' lives today. From cell phones to e-mail and Instant Messenger, from video games and IPods to TVs and DVD players, from thefacebook.com to hopping on the Internet for homework or gambling, students are using and interacting through electronic devices for many of their waking hours.

Use of cell phones and e-mail is so prevalent that it is common for students to not visit their mailboxes for weeks at a time, and individual room phones -- not so many years ago a luxury for students -- are now considered dinosaurs. Administrators speak of calling cell phone numbers in Oregon or Maine to reach students in West Hall or Cutten Complex to tell them their mailbox is overflowing and the mail room is threatening to pitch their packages.

"So, how do we convey important information to them, when the traditional modes of communication are out, and we all hit the delete button when we receive bulk e-mails?" asked Low. Sometimes old-fashioned "sneakernet" -- walking to the student's room -- is the most efficient way to reach them. It may be ironic, she said, but they haven't found a better solution.

In a ten-minute stroll across campus, one will witness a plethora of students walking along either listening to music on a portable digital player such as an IPod, or talking on a cell phone -- to a friend on campus they will see in only moments.


A participant in the Phi Kappa Tau Poker Tournament peeks at his cards before folding the hand. The tournament is held each semester to raise money for the Hole in the Wall Gang Camps, which were founded by Phi Kappa Tau member Paul Newman to provide camp experiences to terminally ill children. [Photo by Timothy D. Sofranko]

Social consciousness
With the fall 2004 election, much attention was paid to the nationwide resurgence of interest in politics and social issues among America's young people. Colgate students are no exception, and their interest seemed to be stronger even than the numbers quoted nationally this fall.

Approximately 70 percent of Colgate first-year students came to campus already registered to vote this year, either locally or through absentee ballots. Thanks in part to a joint voter registration initiative of the COVE and Democracy Matters, those numbers were raised to approximately 95 percent, according to Terhune. The election night party in the Coop drew the most students to a campuswide event in recent memory, save perhaps the 2003 football playoff games or the gathering on the Quad after Sept. 11. And in an informal survey of students (of all class years) in the Coop, 93 percent said that they voted in the fall election.

"I think that turnout shows that we are interested in the future of this country and that we realize we are going to be a part of this changing world," said Smidt.

An increasing number of students are also interested in making the world a better place through their involvement in the community. At least 500 students are engaged in weekly commitments through the COVE; hundreds more take part in one-time service activities through other organizations each semester; and more than 100 students per semester take academic courses with a service learning component. The COVE has become so active it became necessary to beef up its staffing this year (see Around the college, page 12).

In Millennials Rising, Howe and Strauss predicted in 2000: "Over the next decade, the Millennial Generation will entirely recast the image of youth, from downbeat and alienated to upbeat and engaged -- with potentially seismic consequences for America."

Considering where he and his Colgate peers stand today, Smidt believes that prediction is true. "I think that we are an active, positive generation. I really look forward to seeing what we do in the future. I have high hopes, and, frankly, high expectations. We do a lot of talking, but I think we do a lot of doing at the same time. I've been proud of the accomplishments of my peers and I look forward to seeing what they develop into."

As an administrator, Low agrees. "I think we're in pretty good hands. I wouldn't have said that 10 years ago. I feel confident in their ability to take care of the planet."

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