Whenever I hear people talk of students or prospective students as some kind of homogeneous group, or in generational terms, I recall the first time I ever saw a streetsweeper.
During my senior year of college, I’d crashed at a friend’s house after a late night. Woke around 5 a.m., hopped in the ’78 Chevy Malibu and that’s when I saw it. This strange little vehicle with large rotating scrub-brushes cleaning the street. Coming from a town under 2,000, I’d never before experienced such a fantastical machine. But when I told my friends from cities of any size about it after, they eyeballed me as every bit the rube I often felt.
Similarly, our students come from so many different places and experiences, and have such a variety of needs and interests. So it’s curious that, after we’re taught while growing up not to stereotype, so many involved in higher education are quick to, well, stereotype students. They talk of a reductionist Gen Y or Millennial stereotype (founded on fairly shaky ‘research’ and assumptions) and use broad reductionism in spewing generalizations. Don’t our students deserve better?
Anyone who’s had the pleasure of interacting with even a handful of students know what a diverse bunch they are. The young man from the farming community is quite different from the young lady from the Bronx, even if demographers try to pigeonhole them with the same one-size-fits-all label. Isn’t it arrogant to assume they have all these similarities just because they were born within years of each other? To just classify all as Millennials or Gen Yers or whatever oversimplified stereotype someone will invent for the next generation is to do them a disservice. And, in the process, doing all of us a disservice.
So next time you’re thinking of what students may want, here’s a simple suggestion: Don’t box them into a stereotype. Instead, talk to them. You may be amazed. Moreover, you could sweep away preconceptions and assure a clearer road to understanding.