This Generation of Digital Natives Will Lead the Way This Fall

I’m outside my son’s bedroom door with a slice of fresh-baked banana bread, listening to his virtual college lecture, trying to determine if it’s safe to enter. Is this one of the classes where he participates with the camera on? It’s hard to tell. Sometimes I hear him strumming on his guitar while watching a power point.

He says grabbing a snack or going to the bathroom with his laptop on mute is a perk of the new educational format. He’s taking this much better than I am.

My children have been heading to college since before they were born. Our nursery had UNC and UCLA onesies in the closet and stuffed mascots on the shelves. I taught them the Carolina fight song as soon as they could sing and they learned to count thanks to the Bruin 8-clap. We didn’t know where they’d go, but we were fairly certain that, come 18, they would find themselves on a college campus enjoying the intellectual and social freedom my husband and I both treasured in our youth.

My son at home finishing up his semester. (Suzanne Weerts)

We dreamed they would have a similar college experience to our own

What we dreamt for them was what we’d had: four years of leafy quads and football Saturdays, intramural sports and dining hall dinners, late nights in the library and even later nights at parties. But what is becoming clear is that current college students will not have our experience, at least not with casual normalcy and maybe never.

We live in California, and last week’s announcement by the California State University system that they would be entirely on-line come fall semester has us all dreading and preparing for a similar plan by the UCs. Yes, my husband won the nursery onesie battle when our son chose UCLA.

For the first two quarters, he reveled in the college experience and he came home prepared for an extended Spring Break and a couple weeks of remote learning. But just five hours after unloading his duffle bag on a Friday afternoon, we got the email stating the whole Spring Quarter would be on-line. The following week, we drove back to campus to unceremoniously pack up his room. There was no chance for goodbyes with roommates, fraternity brothers, professors or friends.

Several hours south, his sister completed her senior year at UC San Diego on-line. Graduation speeches are virtual with no pomp due to our collective circumstance. Though disappointed, she’s ok with it. I’m the one begging her to go ahead and get the cap and gown so we can have someone take socially distanced photos of her on campus for posterity. I cried as I cancelled the hotel reservation while she seems to be miles ahead of me in moving on, taking a minimum-wage job working remotely. It isn’t what she’d hoped to be doing, but she’s just glad to be doing something.

Meanwhile, my son has resigned himself that classes may be on-line for the fall and maybe the winter quarter as well. But I can’t sleep, lamenting what he’s missing. I want him to have the authentic face-to-face learning experience that I relished. I want him to make lifelong friendships, built through physically shared experiences in a space that will forever be tied to the memories of this time in his life. His childhood bedroom filled with high school posters and soccer trophies was supposed to be for nostalgic breaks from the din of the dorm and not his college norm.

While my son soaks in his on-line classes, I ride the roller coaster of announcements popping up on my news feeds. Cambridge is going virtual until Summer of 2021. Notre Dame is starting early and finishing the semester by Thanksgiving. Some schools will have hybrid on-line and in-person models. Student housing is being reconfigured. What will happen with testing? Will masks be required? Will sports have any fans in the stands? Is a remote education worth the price?

My teens are more adaptable than I am

The college experience as a shadow of its former self haunts my dreams. But my children’s dreams are adaptable.

And I realize this group of young scholars is tech savvy. They are digital natives who can master material in non-traditional ways. Those who aren’t as adept with tech are being forced to learn, and are gaining skills that will no doubt be critical in the workforce. My traditional expectations of learning are in the past. They are the future.

And this group of imminent leaders is flexible. The most successful educators are leading by example. Professors have integrated the pandemic into their syllabi. Discussions of the ramifications of the crisis on economics, health care, elections and social justice are dynamic, concerning, yet hopeful.

They are learning to let go of expectations. They recognize that they are part of history.

This group of capable creators is determined. They may be forced to detour, but they will rebound and are meeting this moment with courage. And if anyone can solve the societal problems revealed through this crisis, it is this generation of young people born in the years just before and immediately after 9/11.

About Suzanne Weerts

Suzanne Weerts is a former television marketing executive turned arts and education advocate. She serves on the Board of the Burbank Arts For All Foundation and co-authored the PTA Resolution Homework: Quality Over Quantity that passed at the National PTA Convention in Orlando in June 2016. The mother of two teens shares her stories on stages across Southern California, on Mamalode and in The Sun Magazine as well as on her blog suzanneweerts-storiestotell.com. Suzanne directed and produced two seasons of Listen To Your Mother Burbank and will bring a storytelling show about connection and diversity to the stage in November 2017.

Read more posts by Suzanne

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