Generation V

Guest Correspondence


I am devoting this column to honoring today’s youth and hopefully will dispel some myths along the way. As president of Ringling College of Art and Design for two decades now, I have seen the labels—such as Generation X, Millennial, and now, Generation Z. I am also familiar with the attributes bestowed upon each of these generations.

The current class of incoming college students represents the new ‘Gen Z’ generation. Born from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s, they are the new collegiate kids in town and as a generational whole they comprise 25 percent of the U.S. population. Gen Z, also known as Post-Millennials or the iGeneration, has been raised with a level of technological and digital sophistication unknown (or even imagined) in our society. Many knew how to swipe before they could talk. And Gen Z kids were able to ignore their parents with as many as five screens, sometimes operating simultaneously.

While Gen Z’ers have been criticized for being more connected to their devices than to people, our experience at Ringling College shows that the Gen Z students enrolled at Ringling are engaging with the community through volunteerism at the highest levels ever. They understand that there’s no app for showing up, being present, engaging with people of all ages, and giving of themselves toward the betterment of others. As a whole, people are often surprised to learn that Ringling College students volunteer more than 17,000 hours every year to our community. They are not required to do so; they do it freely and enthusiastically, despite the incredible demands on their time, attention, energy and talents that the curriculum requires.

Why are they so engaged? They have been brought up in a 24-hour news cycle, available on 800 cable channels and all over the Internet. As a result, they have developed a hyperawareness of the world as it exists around them. They have witnessed adversity, disaster, epidemics, atrocities and sorrow across the globe through the unceasing and merciless digital lens. This exposure makes them attentive to and aware of today’s sociopolitical landscape. It could have jaded them; instead, they have grown to genuinely care about the world they live in.

Fulfilling our mission to foster and educate students to be the creative leaders of tomorrow means preparing our students to also be global citizens and ethical practioners. One way we do that is by providing opportunities for students to serve and to become civically engaged. Although Gen Z is already paying attention to social issues, at Ringling, they are acting on that awareness to help the greater Sarasota-Manatee communities as well as the College.

The College, through its volunteer coordinator, Rachel Levey-Baker, works with over 50 community partners in our region to create volunteer paths for students that leverage their skills and passions to make a difference—a difference they can see and that the community can feel. Our Youth Experiencing Arts Program, for example, has students working with many local community schools and organizations to help integrate the arts into teaching of at-risk students to enhance learning and to develop an appreciation of the arts. Year-long arts integration residencies are created by pairing Ringling College student artists with core curriculum teachers to provide hands-on art experiences that help teach reading, writing and science through the arts. Students work with these faculty to create high-impact projects that support, challenge, and engage students in learning.

Ringling has amazingly high volunteerism among its new students. This fall, 80 percent of our 511 incoming new students participated in a volunteer project during their student orientation. We provide the opportunities to engage, and our students overwhelmingly do! Just this week we honored 10 of those students with the Emerging Service Leader Award, which recognizes second-year students who engaged with and served the community throughout their first year at Ringling.  

The service of our students is being recognized beyond the Ringling campus. On Thursday, Oct. 25 we tied for first place for the Florida Campus Compact’s Most Engaged Campus Award and placed second for its Outstanding Community Partnership Award, for our partnership with Alta Vista Elementary School here in Sarasota. Our campus, with its 1,571 students, was in competition with all colleges across Florida, including places like University of Florida, with its thousands of students, and WON. That shows just how engaged with the community our students are.

I am proud and honored to report that Generation Z is showing levels of community engagement, authenticity and volunteerism that not only give me great hope for our future, but also dispel the myth that this generation is one more engaged with technology than with the world. Our students have me convinced that maybe Generation V (for Volunteerism) would be a far more suitable moniker for our latest generation.

Dr. Larry Thompson is president of Ringling College of Art and Design.

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