Feature Article #3

Kids These Days

Maintaining Relevance with Millennials


By Tiffany Shelton, Schedule and Publications Coordinator 
Seattle Pacific University 
February 2011 

© 2011 Tiffany Shelton.
The text of this article is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/)

PACRAO Review, vol. 1, no. 1, February 2011 

© Jim Kim 2009

I’m thirty. I started working full-time at the end of my junior year, so my mindset switched from student to university staff in that instant, despite spending another year finishing my degree. I have a house, a husband, a son, and I live in the suburbs. To college students, I am ancient; and I’m not even that old (or so I tell myself). So how do I stay relevant? What can I do to keep up as “I get older, [and] they stay the same age?” (Dazed & Confused, 1993). 


University students are our customers, and they’re our employees. In Student Academic Services at Seattle Pacific University, our office would not run near as smoothly if it weren’t for our student staff. They each work between ten and twenty hours per week during the academic year, so we amass many hours in the same space. We also see a steady stream of undergrads, coming to us to fill varied needs. As higher education professionals, we read articles about this millennial generation, and try to be mindful of its unique point-of view. I challenge you not to let it end there. Put theory into practice, and engage these students. 

I’m not suggesting that you fake it or force it. That will be more awkward than having nothing to talk about. But here are some small steps you can take to connect with this younger generation. 

Working in higher education, we all feel the push to step up our technology. We know that we need to find the best ways to use it in recruiting; we’re pressured into providing up-to-the-minuteinformation for students; and we focus on how best to reach the parents. With so many constituencies and missions across departments, we all seem to know the same thing: we have got to use the latest and greatest tools to set ourselves apart. How do we get our messages to people who view mail as a nuisance, who ignore their school email accounts, and who never bother to set up their dorm room voice-mail boxes, in favor of a single mobile phone? 

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These are important questions, and we’re all working to answer them. But what I’d like to do is explore technology on a relational level. How can these ever-evolving tools help us to connect with those students who we are here to serve, rather than expanding the chasm between us? 

In 2008, 60% of college students said that they thought the internet had improved their relationships with classmates. 56% believed that email had enhanced their relationship with professors (Wilen-Daugenti, p. 63). This is telling. Students aren’t just using technology, they value it. 

It’s easy to avoid change. If not easy, it’s comfortable. It’s a big world out there, and you like things the way they are. You may tell yourself that you don’t need Facebook, that you’re content to keep your students at arm’s length. But if you wish to be relevant to these kids, you’ve got to make an effort somehow. Heck, you may grow to like it. Can you imagine life without a telephone? Of course not. But just 135 years ago, it was scary new technology. Food for thought. 

One way that I stay connected is by simply doing what I do best: I watch TV. I’ve always watched entirely too much of it, and like Mike Teavee before me, I took my meals in front of it as a kid (Dahl, 1964). Because I follow a depth and breadth of TV shows, odds are my interests will overlap with at least a few of our student workers’. 

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If you’re not a big TV watcher but you want to find some fodder for pop culture conversations, there are some great tools that will sum it all up for you. The Soup will catch you up on all the ridiculous things that were on TV this week. Tosh.0 gathers the viral videos that you probably received in an email from your uncle, and then promptly deleted (typically with good reason). Best Week Ever recaps pop culture and entertainment news in the past week. Saturday Night Live is, as it always has been, culturally relevant. On some level, anyway. If you can’t handle the entire hour and a half, or if it’s past your bedtime and you don’t have a DVR, hulu is your friend. Just watch Weekend Update, the SNL Digital Short, and anything political. You’ll be prepared for Monday morning. 

It all boils down to putting yourself out there. If you hear your student workers chatting about last night’s episode of Modern Family, and that happens to be your favorite show, chime in. In this way, TV can bring people together. Once the door is open, you may find that you’re conversing about deeper things, and forging lasting friendships. 

On October 9th Saturday Night Live aired a commercial parody after the monologue. Nothing new there. We all have our favorites: Bass-O-Matic, First CityWide Change Bank, Taco Town, the list goes on. Jane Lynch, of Christopher Guest’s films and Glee, served as host and played the mom in this ad for a Facebook Mom Filter. The commercial was hilarious, and the point was clear: your mom’s on Facebook (FB), and you need to protect yourself, and her, by not letting her see what you’re really like. As the mom of a toddler (and future internet user), the aunt of teenagers, and the daughter of a FB mom, this sketch spoke to me. Sure, it was funny. But it made a really good point. People are careless about the content they put out there. We should all behave as if our moms are on Facebook, even if they aren’t. But they probably are. 

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And thank goodness for that! If your mom is on FB, you should be proud. It shows that she is adapting, and that she’s trying to advance with the technology. Technology is leading, and your mom is following. If you don’t already have a Facebook account, I’d recommend following mom’s example. Sure, it will be replaced at some point by the next big thing (remember MySpace?), but this will be your first step in keeping up. You'll get to know your students and student workers so much better than you might have five or ten years ago. It’s also a great tool for keeping in touch once they’ve graduated and moved on to the next chapter. 

Aside from connecting with your students, your personal life may benefit, too. Last Christmas I found conversation with rarely seen relatives-in-law to be much easier than in past years. Becau
se we’d become FB friends, we knew each others’ news, and it gave us a whole new jumping off point. We had moved beyond small talk, and were ready to just be together. 

While I am espousing t
he advantages of social networking and using it to reach your students, I would be remiss if I didn’t warn you of the dangers. Among them: 

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  • Don’t bad-mouth work or coworkers. It’s tempting to update your FB status when that professor belittled you, or your boss refused to give you Friday off, but please resist. Try to avoid unprofessional comments, period. 
  • It’s distracting, and a great time-waster. 
  • Facebook is not private. You may have logged in to a secure site, but anything you post on anyone’s wall can be read by people you’ve never met. I’ve heard it compared to a whiteboard outside your dorm room. And before you fall into the trap: “wall-to-wall” is not private. It’s just an alternate way of viewing a specific friend’s wall. It's important to remind yourself that it's a worldwide web, and that not much can be done in confidence, short of sending private messages. And even those are about as private as traditional email, which isn’t secure at all. 
  • It can actually hinder real conversations. Reading about your neighbor’s weekend plans can be a great conversation starter. On the flipside, you may find yourself going months without calling your cousin, who you used to talk to every week, because you already read about how she’s been keeping busy. 
  • Interestingly, people are often more transparent on Facebook than they are in real life. Somehow the fear goes away when you’re facing a computer screen instead of a real person. Never mind the hundreds of people who are reading your thoughts. 

So now you’re on FB, and you’re connecting with your student workers on your mutual love of Project Runway. How does that help with those students who don’t know you from Adam? Your job doesn’t lend itself to deep conversations with your customers. You’re running transcripts, answering general questions, giving directions, advising… 

If there’s an interest you’re passionate about, start a club on campus and invite the students who you know. They can invite their friends who might be interested, and you can take it from there. Share recipes or restaurant recommendations with fellow foodies. Discuss movies with film buffs. Play Frisbee Golf with fellow fanatics. Start that book club you’ve been putting off. A Facebook group can also be a great forum for these shared hobbies. If that’s outside your comfort zone, don’t forget that you work at an educational institution. Attend a public lecture or choir concert, and strike up a conversation afterward. 

© Jim Kim 2009

No time in your busy schedule to tack on one more activity? Here’s a simple conversation starter: office décor. My cubicle is on the Registration Office’s frontline. I have short bursts of face-time with students, faculty, staff, alumni, and other visitors to campus. But because I’ve chosen to decorate my cubby with artifacts that are personal to me, occasionally one of those customers will connect with me. I should start keeping track of the number of volatile conversations that have been diffused by a picture of my son, prominently posted. My all-time favorite TV show is The Simpsons. I’ve been watching it since the beginning, even in those days when I wasn’t allowed to because it espoused “bad family values.” And yes, I still watch it. So a few years ago when The Simpsons Movie was released, I gathered my movie poster, McDonalds toys, and Monopoly game pieces, and prominently displayed them. And wouldn’t you know it, my fellow Simpsons fans light up when they see them. Simply putting yourself out there in this small way gives you a human face. My kitschy décor transforms me from the seemingly heartless bureaucrat blindly enforcing arbitrary rules, into Tiffany. 

What I hope I’ve impressed upon you is that these students are not only a necessary ingredient in your employment, they are vital to the life of your school. At times we would much rather retire to the porch swing and grouse about kids these days, and how they don’t appreciate what they have. What a missed opportunity that would be! Every generation is different, but at the end of the day we’re all people. Why not take advantage of this opportunity to get to know someone new? You may actually feel younger after finding your common ground. 

Resources 

Brooks, James L. (Executive producer), Groening, Matt (Executive producer), Simon, Sam (Executive producer). (1989-). The Simpsons [Television series]. USA. 

Brooks, James L. (Producer), Groening, Matt (Producer), Jean, Al (Producer), Sakai, Richard (Producer), Scully, Mike (Producer), & Silverman, David (Director). (2007). The Simpsons Movie [Motion picture].USA: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, Gracie Films. 

Cohen, Annie (Co-executive producer). (2004-). Best Week Ever with Paul F. Tompkins [Television series]. USA. 

Dahl, Roald (1964). Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. USA: Alfred A. Knopf. 

Daniel, Sean (Producer), Jacks, James (Producer), Linklater, Richard (Producer), Walker-McBay, Anne (Co-Producer), & Linklater, Richard (Director). (24 September, 1993). Dazed and Confused [Motion picture]. USA: Alphaville Films. 

Homlish, Christian (Producer). (2006-). Top Chef [Television series]. Washington, D.C. 

Levitan, Steven (Executive producer), Lloyd, Christopher (Executive producer). (2009-). Modern Family [Television series]. Los Angeles, CA. 

McHale, Joel (Producer/Co-executive producer). (2004-). The Soup [Television series]. Los Angeles: E! Network Studios. 

Michaels, Lorne (Executive Producer), Higgins, Steve (Producer), & King, Don Roy (Director). (1975-). Saturday Night Live [Television series]. New York City, NY: NBC Studios. 

Tosh, Daniel (Executive producer). (2009-). Tosh.0 [Television series]. USA. 

Weinstein, Bob (Executive producer), Weinstein, Harvey (Executive producer), Klum, Heidi (Executive producer), Gruber, Desiree (Executive producer). (2005-). Project Runway [Television series]. New York City, NY. 

Wilen-Daugenti, Dr. Tracey (2009). .edu: Technology and Learning Environments in Higher Education. New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc. 



About the Author 



Tiffany Shelton 

Tiffany Shelton is the Schedule & Publications Coordinator at Seattle Pacific University (WA). She is in her tenth year working at SPU, where she earned her B.A. in Music. Her favorite websites are Facebook, CBSSports.com, Farmville.com, and radiolab.org, and she would be hard-pressed to miss an episode of Top Chef. She enjoys spending her free time with her husband and son, and has been a member of the PACRAO Writers Team since 2008.
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