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by Christina A. Russ
For students born and bred in the age of technology and constant connection, a hands-on liberal arts education – Hiram College’s specialty for more than 160 years – is becoming more relevant than ever.
In the early 2000s, the generation known as millennials first took colleges by storm. Millennials, individuals born between 1982 and 2005, are described as “special, sheltered, confident, team-oriented, achieving, pressured and conventional” by Neil Howe and William Strauss in their book, “Millennials Go To College” (2003). As society has wrestled with defining this tech-savvy group, college faculty and administrators have watched, listened and adapted as they uncover how millennials best learn and endeavor to shape them into tomorrow’s leaders.
Now, much of the generation has come of age, and one thing is clear – when it comes to learning, today’s college students need exactly what Hiram College has been successfully providing and innovating for almost 165 years: a hands-on liberal arts education. “The type of education that Hiram provides is increasingly rare and increasingly relevant,” says President Lori Varlotta, Ph.D. “No matter what field of study a Hiram student pursues, he or she will be expected to think across multiple perspectives, write well, formulate cogent arguments, work in teams, develop viable solutions, listen to and learn from points of views different from their own, and be respectful.”
These skills are ever more important in a world where professionals not only change “jobs” but also careers multiple times throughout their lives. This phenomenon is a real one that differentiates present from past.
“Despite this differentiation, I think it is very difficult to categorize an entire generation of students with a single swoop of the brush,” Dr. Varlotta acknowledges. “But what I have seen in many of the students I have come to know in my first months at Hiram is this: students here seem to be ‘passionate learners’ rather than purist learners. So many of them have a strong interest in various fields of study and inquiry. They are willing to branch out, explore and take intellectual risks during their educational journey.”
Isabella Williams ’17 agrees that Hiram is the ideal place for millennials like herself, who don’t want to be pigeonholed.
“A liberal arts education is perfect for my generation,” she says. “I came in knowing that I wanted to study science; I like the subject and I’m good at it. But to this day, I’m not necessarily sold that I want to go into a traditional career in science.”
In less than two years, Williams has carried three campus jobs, been on two study away trips and conducted research in the Chemistry Department.
She calls herself “borderline over-engaged,” but for her, that’s been a good thing. Like many of her peers, she has a strong desire to synthesize her many interests into meaningful work.
Hiram students of generations past know this opportunity to juggle classwork, leadership, athletics and internships is nothing new. And that’s why, for millennials, a generation brought up to have many interests, but pressured to find their niche, a Hiram education seems tailor-made.
Sandy Madar, Ph.D., director of strategic academic initiatives and professor of biology, has seen that both as an administrator and faculty member.
“Their biggest strength is that they’re energetic, and they’re engaged,” Dr. Madar said of the current student body. “College isn’t just an entitlement for them; it’s something they’re eager to do. They’re effervescent, and there’s a sense of optimism and hope.”
But with that optimism and hope, comes a struggle to focus. Dr. Madar believes there’s much Hiram can do to help. For example, when she assigns her freshmen Honors students to write an internship cover letter as their first assignment, they are eager, but overwhelmed.
“Information is so easy for them to access; they’re almost spooked by how many options are laid out in front of them,” she says, adding that she quells that fear by facilitating “reflective learning.”
“We’re so pressured to respond andmake decisions quickly because we’re always connected,” Dr. Madar says.
“Reflective learning is designed to get them to stop and systemize their decision-making: to do a self-analysis, understand what they’re motivated by, what they’re good at. What are their long and short-term goals?”
“These are not typically conversations college students may have, but in Hiram’s small environment, there’s room to talk about that.”
Gen Z is coming!
There is some debate about when the millennial generation ends and when the next generation – generation Z – begins.
Some have defined generation Z as children born starting as early as the mid-to-late ’90s. That theory would place Hiram’s freshman class, born from 1995-1996, in the new cohort. But it is more widely accepted that generation Z begins with those born in the early to mid 2000s; they will be the generation that did not know a world before 9/11, and the generation who grew up using five to eight screens at a time, as opposed to millennials, who grew up using one or two.
There isn’t – and probably never will be – a solid start or end date when it comes to generations. But no matter how you look at it, a new generation will soon (or perhaps already has!) set foot on Hiram’s campus. Experts have called them even more entrepreneurial and more eager to make a difference in the world, than millennials. They are also more realistic, in contrast to millennials’ optimism.
But it is still early; half the generation is yet to be born.
Fortunately, Hiram College is doing all it can to be ready for them. And Hiram Connect and Hiram Collaborative are two ways to maximize the College’s heritage and leverage its traditions of academic, experiential and reflective learning. At the very core, the two initiatives will strengthen the College’s ability to educate the next generation of leaders with a hands-on liberal arts education.
As generation Z matures, the world will continue to learn more about their views, habits, learning style and motivation. And Hiram College will be ready for them.
Connecting the Dots
Studies from the American Psychological Association reveal that millennials prefer learning through hands-on methods and by connecting classroom concepts to real life scenarios.
Hiram College has long succeeded in this regard. Dr. Madar estimates about 80 percent of students currently engage in experiential learning for their majors, through internships, research and study abroad.
Under a new initiative called Hiram Connect, Dr. Varlotta would like to see that number rise closer to 100 percent. She introduced this initiative when she took office in July 2014 to build upon the things Hiram already does well. Hiram Connect will help students identify the type of internship, study away or research project that can introduce them to a possible career, professional network or experience that will help them better understand the direction they want to take in life.
Hiram Connect will prompt students to reflect on the fundamental issues of identity and purpose: Why am I at Hiram? What do I want to do after graduation? Why type of person do I aspire to become or be?
A second program, which will complement Hiram Connect, is called Hiram Collaborative. This new program will connect Hiram College to the business community in an effort to fuel economic development in Northeast Ohio.
Through Hiram Collaborative, College representatives will work with area businesses to identify the hard and soft skill sets their specific industry looks for when hiring employees. Hiram will then consider curriculum adjustments to meet those needs. “More than 40 percent of jobs in Northeast Ohio require a bachelor’s degree, yet 16 percent of the unemployed population possess one,” says Dr. Varlotta. “This means there is a 24 percent gap in degreed candidates. Hiram wants to help close that gap by graduating students who are immediately ready to enter the local workforce.”
In return for Hiram’s responsiveness to the needs of companies, Hiram Collaborative asks companies to provide scholarships, to mentor and train students, and to offer valuable internships that can lead to jobs within their companies. All of this will keep more college graduates in the region.
An internship was just what Chelsey Christie ’15 needed in order to start seeing connections between what she learned in the classroom and how she might apply it to her post-graduation endeavors.
To fulfill the internship requirement for her educational studies major, Christie ran a 12-week after-school literacy program at Crestwood Primary School in nearby Mantua. This experience affirmed her desire to work with young children in her future career, while forcing her outside her comfort zone.
“The opportunity to do an internship and more hands-on work helps you figure out what you want and be more self-confident,” Christie says. “You learn what you can do, reach new limitations and go where you’ve never been before.”
The Personal Touch
As she looks back on her internship, Christie says feedback played an important role in her personal growth. Raised in an age of instant gratification, she, like many millennials, craves a constant exchange about what she does well and what she could do differently. Standard rubric grading and end-of-the-semester assessments aren’t enough.
Jory Gomes ’18 agrees, adding that feedback from faculty was instrumental in assessing his strengths, weaknesses and interests during his first semester, Fall 2014.
“Hiram does a really good job at making students understand that we do have a say in what goes on in the world around us,” he says. “Students have been told their whole lives that their opinions don’t matter, that they’re still children. But every single time I interact with a Hiram professor, I don’t feel like a little kid.”
Gomes says he can already see the advantage he has over his peers because of his relationships with professors.
“My generation has a fear of failure,” he said, “and so a lot of people struggle with connecting to professors and upperclassmen. I have friends from other colleges who are afraid to talk to their professors, so they’ll email them a question while they’re sitting in class, instead of just asking it.”
Dr. Madar says one of Hiram’s biggest advantages to this generation is that it forces them to connect with people.
“For all their connectedness, they’re not very connected,” she says. “That screams to me why a college experience that has some intimacy built into it is so important today.”
Her “aha moment” came during Institute Week 2011 (the three to four days of programming set aside for freshmen before returning students arrive) when a few freshmen told her they had spent their entire first night on campus texting their friends from back home, instead of meeting new friends or exploring campus.
“What I learned is that it takes them longer to connect with their new environment in college because they are so connected to family and friends at home,” Dr. Madar says. “That has real consequences, and it’s why a small setting is advantageous. It forces them to not be anonymous and to engage with a new set of people and experiences that they’ve not encountered before.”
At Hiram College, the introduction to college life has never ended with Institute Week. Instead, the entire first year at Hiram is marked with experiences and courses that help ease the transition.
Hiram Start, another of Dr. Varlotta’s leading initiatives, seeks to find new ways and to grow existing initiatives that help first-year students find their niches and connect to advisors, friends and faculty.
“Many K-12 students today have a multitude of after-school and weekend activities that make their young lives very structured and organized. Children often have a game, a team practice, a music lesson and a gymnastics or dance class on their calendars each and every afternoon. When people my age were growing up, we didn’t have a calendar,” Varlotta says. “I have found that many new students are surprised by the level of freedom they encounter in college. I think it is our role as educators to talk with them about this ‘freedom’ and to introduce them to the choices they have to fill their day in meaningful ways. I do not think it is our place to fill their days for them by prescribing what they do during each waking hour.”
What the College can do, Varlotta says, is create and build upon traditions like Campus Day (the annual day of community service in mid-September) that help students build relationships and connect with each other and the community.
Making a Difference
Hiram’s millennials have embraced the opportunity to take part in not just a single day of service, but also an overall commitment to civic engagement and giving back. A study by The Millennial Impact (a partnership with the Case Foundation), revealed that today’s college students and young adults value philanthropy, with more than 87 percent donating to a nonprofit in 2013.
Alys Dutton ’15, who will graduate with a Bachelor of Arts degree in creative writing in May, says she is proud to call herself a member of both a generation – millennials – and of a community – Hiram – where things like empathy and giving back are the norm. “Philanthropy has become sort of a standard here, and I like it,” she says.
In addition to participating in structured programs (which Hiram has no shortage of), millennials are making philanthropy go high-tech. They’re among the biggest supporters of crowd funding websites like Kickstarter and GoFundMe, built on the idea that change is possible by donating $5-$10 to individual projects. And they’re known for making causes go viral through sensations like the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, which, during the summer of 2014, raised more than $50 million for ALS charities.
But it’s clear their desire to do good deeds goes well beyond social media and technology. The Millennial Impact also revealed in its 2014 report that a company’s dedication to causes ranks third most important when millennials are considering a job. This is a generation that values the chance to make a difference and do meaningful work over earning the highest paycheck.
That rings true to Dutton. Her Hiram experience has been defined by her opportunities to impact the lives of her peers, through her work as a teaching assistant, resident assistant and writing tutor. And as she looks toward graduation, she is hoping for more of the same; she is considering spending a year teaching English in Thailand or completing a fellowship at a boarding school.
“I’ve found that I almost can’t tolerate jobs where I don’t feel like I’m doing something meaningful,” she says. “I’ve always gravitated toward a job where I can have tangible results of the impact that I’ve had.”
Leading the Way
The desire to do meaningful work has led many millennials to choose the path of entrepreneurship.
James Thompson, Ph.D., associate professor of political science, believes a Hiram education is the perfect preparation for 21st century entrepreneurs. He has already guided several students on the path to entrepreneurship through the Ravenna Urban Revitalization Project, a venture designed to grow the city of Ravenna, Ohio, through student entrepreneurship. Hiram students and alumni own and operate Monza Studios, a full service analog recording studio on North Chestnut Street, and a fashion business involving two current students is in the works.
Dr. Thompson believes that as Northeast Ohio continues to grow, Hiram graduates will be the ones leading the way as business owners, CEOs and public leaders.
“Entrepreneurs need to combine a range of disciplines – policy, arts, technology, communication and economics – and Hiram students are able to do that because they’re not pigeonholed and trained to do one task,” he says. “They’re liberally educated.”
Alumnus Justin Lonis ’14, who placed in several idea competitions through the Center for Integrated Entrepreneurship during his time as a student, has spent much of his time post-graduation working with local hospitals and organizations to get his product, the Advanced Balance Board, to market. He says he believes it’s up to his generation to bring the world into the 21st century.
“There comes a point where you have to improve upon or change something that’s already existing,” he says. “This generation is taking what was new 20 or 30 years ago and bringing it into this millennium, making it easier and more accessible to use. We need this innovative generation right now to keep up with technology, and it’s only getting better from here.”
His optimism for the future is spoken as a true millennial. And Hiram, as an institution of higher learning, has every reason to exude that same optimism as it looks to educate generations to come. After all, as students change, and generations come and go, a liberal arts education has been, and always will be, timeless.