All across the country university communities are coming together for the rituals that mark the beginning of the academic year. Orientations, convocations, photos being taken for ID cards, students auditioning for plays, fraternities welcoming pledges, walk-on athletes gathering up the courage to try-out, etc. That exciting time when it feels like the sky's the limit.
There are hundreds of thousands of us who will teach, coach, serve, prepare meals for, clean up after, and provide safe learning communities for more than 20 million students. This will be hard work as we all try to settle into the fall term. For each student and their family, there are many questions to be answered, concerns to be addressed, and details to be sorted out. Wireless services, shuttle schedules, online services and insurance, etc.
There will be students with learning differences who are navigating college for the first time. Veterans who come to us looking for direction as they begin a new phase in their lives. Transfer students who are coming in with different higher ed experiences. International students coming from all over the globe. Students in recovery praying they can succeed at college while they continue to work on their sobriety. Families who need our empathy and sensitivity as they make huge sacrifices to afford our tuition, pay our salaries, and sustain us as we continue to serve, transform and innovate.
Each fall the Beloit College Mindset List is distributed through our sector. You know the list: it reminds us how young our freshmen are... and perhaps how young we are not. This year's first-year class was born in 1996. Where were you in 1996? Working? Perhaps you were in college? High school? Grade school? Pre-school? Does it matter? What matters is that we have all come together ready to serve this generation of students.
Someone who was born in 1996 may have missed the OJ Simpson trial, the release of Mel Gibson's film Braveheart, the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, the release of the Unabomber's manifesto, the introduction of the DVD format, and the breakup of the band known as The Grateful Dead.
But what did they not miss? They grew up in a world of ever accelerating technological achievements. Some call these achievements disruptive events that accelerate humanity's progress. Others see them as being part of a march away from faith, community, empathy, and stability. Many of our students have experienced, first-hand, the increasing stratification of socio-economic classes across the world... and two or three economic meltdowns almost entirely attributable to greed.
They may not know the history, but they see the complications caused by the Western world arbitrarily drawing national boundaries across the Middle East. They may have memories of painful conversations each September 11th. And now a funny man they know by watching the film Jumanji on DVD dies of depression.
Sure, some of them may try to watch Netflix in class. They may look down at their phones as they walk across our campuses. They may be self-medicating or sharing their medications with their friends. They may have a hard time not thinking about their service in Iraq or Afghanistan. More than likely, many of them arrive to class either coming from or going to work. And some of them may have taken two or three buses to get to school.
They need us. Our students, new and returning, need us. They need us to care for them. To challenge them. But most importantly, to inspire them. We will remember this summer as the time of Ferguson, the Ukraine, ISIS, beheadings, extreme weather, technological singularity.... dark things. In the year 2014, students, perhaps more than ever, need to be inspired. To rise above their circumstances, to consider our modern times, and determine what they will do to make a difference.
Let's be there for them. And let's be there for each other during this most critical time when first impressions are formed, habits and routines begin to lock in, and as news from the outside world comes into the sanctuary we provide in our learning communities. True, they come to us to prepare for the work world. But they also come to learn what it means to be human. And, as we were reminded this summer, the human condition is complex and fraught with pain and suffering.
We need them to make the world a better place. Let's be generous with our understanding when they show little interest in things that happened before 1996.
This essay is adapted from the fall start-up presentation made to the Marymount California University community by its president, Dr. Michael S. Brophy. 8/18/14