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Millennial Engagement

by Joan Lorden

February 7,2008

To work on campus with over 22,000 students mainly below the age of twenty-four is to be surrounded by energy, optimism, and a good measure of impatience. These are the Millennials, the Tech Generation, Generation Y, the Echo Boom. Googling these terms yields a wealth of attributes, not all positive. Plugged in 24/7, the Millennials have been schooled in self-esteem and hovered over by helicopter parents.

Many Millennials may have grown up pampered, but they hurried to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to help rebuild the city and reached out to fellow students displaced by the flooding. Like their counterparts across the country, our UNC Charlotte students willingly contribute their time and talent to worthy causes and are formidable fundraisers. When author Greg Mortenson talked about his work building schools for girls in Pakistan, students raised over $6,000 in an evening. This year, our students proposed levying a “green” fee on themselves to fund environmental sustainability projects.

When students engage in volunteer efforts, they both serve the common good and acquire skills in teamwork and leadership. What volunteerism does not necessarily do is to convey an understanding of the fundamental needs that must be served not only by corporate and personal generosity, but by the public sector.

Contributors to UNC Tomorrow, an initiative designed to make the University of North Carolina System more proactive and directly responsive to the challenges facing the state, recommended a wide range of strategies to address the state’s needs in K-12 education, health, the environment, and economic development. Many recommendations focused on engaging faculty in the community. The faculty have much to share, but our first and best response is a well-educated student body, prepared with a deep understanding of the world they will inherit and the intellectual tools needed to live successfully as responsible and responsive citizens of the 21st century.

Many students, even those with long records of volunteer activities in high school, arrive at the university unaware of the challenges our communities face. At the university, we can focus on the curriculum and hope that civic engagement is a byproduct or we can try to create structures that foster integration. At UNC Charlotte, we have chosen the latter and have adapted the Crossroads Charlotte community building initiative as a vehicle for civic knowledge and engagement.

When UNC Charlotte committed to joining Crossroads, a team of faculty and staff wrestled with defining a project that would promote the Crossroads goals of access, equity, inclusion, and trust in the social, political, economic, and cultural life of the community. The team designed a course sequence based on the Crossroads data and scenarios that describe four possible outcomes for the Charlotte of 2015.

In their first semester, participating freshmen explore the driving forces behind social change, experience the interpretation of the four scenarios, and examine a public issue in detail. Because the scenarios reflect the complexity of the community, students can focus on topics related to education, health, crime, the environment, or other areas related to their interests. As teams, they work through the issues and their relation to a vision for the future.

In spring, student teams partner with other Crossroads organizations to apply what they have learned in semester-long service learning projects. By their sophomore year, they are ready for advanced classes enriched by a community-based experience. For students who grew up in Charlotte and newcomers alike, the Crossroads sequence changes their perception of the community. Students see themselves as part of something bigger and understand early in their college careers how they can make a difference with their degrees.

In a study just released by the American Association of Colleges and Universities, employers assessed means for developing the knowledge and skills needed for success in their companies. Overwhelmingly, employers advised colleges to invest in faculty-evaluated internships or community-based learning experiences where students apply college learning in a real-world setting. By directing the Millennials’ enthusiasm to civic engagement as part of an integrated curriculum, we also prepare them for success in the workforce. Next fall, UNC Charlotte will enroll over 3,000 freshmen. As we continue to expand the Crossroads program and partnerships, imagine what informed student engagement in the community could do for Charlotte.

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