Who is making the strongest case for in-person learning?

Our technology-addicted students
Matthew Scogin is the 14th president of Hope College in Holland, Michigan. 
Matthew Scogin is the 14th president of Hope College in Holland, Michigan.

Less than a year ago, I stepped into a new role: college president. Having come from a career in finance—including time at the U.S. Department of the Treasury and on Wall Street—I was a newcomer to academia.

When I started last summer, it was already clear that the landscape of higher education was in flux. There were many challenges ahead. One primary challenge, I was told, is the very generation of students we serve: Generation Z.

Read: Updated: 117 free higher ed resources during coronavirus pandemic

Serving tech-savvy Gen Zers

Born between the mid-1990s and the early 2010s, these young adults—also dubbed the “iGen” by author and psychology professor Jeanne Twenge—make up the vast majority of our student population at Hope College in Michigan.

Having grown up in a hyperconnected world, Gen Zers have never known life without smartphones and digital devices. For other generations, their behaviors and attitudes are perplexing. Gen Z students prefer to stay at home (some call it “anti-social”), tethered to friends by screens (some called it “addicted to technology”). They avoid risk. They are reliant on social media, which drives their fear of missing out. They are high achievers, but their measurement of achievement includes likes, shares, regrams, retweets and Snapstreaks.

On college campuses across the country, faculty and staff have been grappling with the question of how to engage these students whose lives play out through technology.

And then, COVID-19 hit.

Like most of higher education, our campus community had a matter of days to go from in-person instruction to virtual classrooms. As we did, our students’ tech savvy—so often bemoaned as “over-reliance”—suddenly became a saving grace.

Read: Why face-to-face instruction will have big impact on fall enrollment

Authentic human connection

Our students helped us leap into new learning modalities with confidence.

On the first day of remote courses, I popped into a few of our classes to offer encouragement. That day, a professor with decades of teaching experience confessed to his students that being new to the technology, he was very nervous. Two students spoke up right away: “It’s OK, professor.” “We’re used to it. We’ll help you.”

The students who were supposedly rendering the in-person college experience irrelevant are now the ones who most desire and value the in-person experience.

I was struck by that moment. The humility of the professor. The kindness of the students. The driving desire to teach and the enduring desire to learn. But most of all, what characterized that moment was its authentic human connection.

That kind of genuine bond is precisely what all humans crave, and it turns out, Gen Z is no different. It wasn’t long—in fact, within days of going remote—before our students were lamenting their loss of in-person interaction. A wave of grief began shortly after classes became virtual gatherings. Students grieved the inability to be together—to learn together, eat together, play together, compete together, worship together, and, yes, struggle together.

They made it clear: Being together, in person, matters.

Read: How first-year students will start college on campus

‘When will we be together again?’

As we wrapped up our spring semester, the most common question I got was: When will we be together again? And as we look to the fall, the most common question is: Can we please return to campus? We have good news. We recently announced our intention to resume in-person coursework in the fall, unless conditions beyond our control prevent us from doing so.

Some have suggested the COVID era will spark a permanent shift from classroom to online education. The sentiment from current students does not support that conclusion.

The students who were supposedly rendering the in-person college experience irrelevant are now the ones who most desire and value the in-person experience.

Unexpectedly, what these iGen students crave most is authentic togetherness. But should that really be a surprise?

Read: Will higher ed’s digital transformation save it?

Consider the Gen Z reality

Sure, they have been accused of living their lives in a highly curated, inauthentic world. They have been called superficial and coddled. They have been dismissed as unprepared for the real world and unable to manage real-life conflict.

Yet consider their reality. They have known uncertainty and discord their entire lives. Most of our graduating seniors in the Class of 2020 were born shortly before 9/11. When they entered preschool, the world was in an international crisis characterized by terrorism and war. They were around 10 when the Great Recession hit, and they remember parents and loved ones coping with loss of jobs, homes and income security. They are the most ethnically diverse generation in American history, growing up in a world sadly characterized by heightened racial tension.

And here they are today, graduating in a time of international crisis, as a global pandemic rages on.

Let us take a moment to recognize the Class of 2020—made up of students who were born into a world in crisis and graduate into a world in crisis.

As they grieve their inability to celebrate their graduation in person, they also are dispelling every stereotype ever assigned to them.

Read: How a distance learning institution is moving commencement online

Resilient, prepared, committed

Students of the Class of 2020 are not coddled “snowflakes.” They are, in fact, resilient. They are prepared for the real world, with grit and determination. Their awareness of risk and threat makes them flexible, perceptive and critical thinkers. They are aware of the evil that exists in the world and that gives them a resounding commitment to character.

They understand the promise that technology may hold for the world, but they also understand that authentic human connection makes that promise worth pursuing.

After one year as a college president, there are few things I can say for sure. But I know for certain that we are in good hands with the Class of 2020.

Matthew Scogin is the 14th president of Hope College in Holland, Michigan. He previously served senior roles at the U.S. Treasury Department (from 2006-2008) and the New York Stock Exchange.

UB’s coronavirus page offers complete coverage of the impacts on higher ed.

Matthew Scogin
Matthew Scogin
Matthew Scogin is the 14th president of Hope College in Holland, Michigan.

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