On college campuses across America, spring semester is coming to an end. This can be an emotional time, I’ve discovered, for those of us who relish the company of these millennials.
No one warned me about this.
Three semesters ago, I agreed to teach at the journalism school that launched me nearly four decades earlier. Whenever someone asks why I was willing to go back to Kent State — to a non- Ivy League school, they usually mean — I explain that I was the first in my family to go to college and that at least a third of my students can say the same. Virtually all of my students hold down at least one — some have two or even three — jobs while carrying a full course load.
They do this so that they can stay in school.
They do this because they have dreams, too.
These are the students filling my life these days. It’s my privilege to help them learn in whatever way I can. Sometimes I also remind them that there was a time when I was one of them, right down to the multiple jobs to make it through.
However, I went to school with the help of low-interest student loans, government grants and the occasional scholarship. I graduated with barely $2,000 of debt. Some of my students will be my age before they’ve paid off their student debt. I am the grandmother of five, to give you an idea of the depth and breadth of their burden.
We have betrayed this generation in that way, and these millennials will not soon forget that. Remarkably, I seldom hear even an echo of bitterness from them. They are determined to make their way with or without us. As one student with a challenging childhood told me, “I’m the one who got away, and I am not going to waste this one shot.”
So many of us college-educated Americans fail to see how, even in 2017 America, our degrees make us luckier than most. I don’t mean to suggest that life is always better if you go to college, but it sure can change whom you see in the mirror every day. So much of life is a head game.
These students. I’ve known all along that our time together came with a deadline. This was the deal, from the beginning. Yet here I am, contemplating their departure — many of them are graduating — with the heavy heart of the mother I guess I will always be.
No one prepared me for this part of teaching. Certainly, my colleagues shared stories of the work they love, the students who lay claim to their hearts. But that’s a little bit like listening to someone talking about her marriage. Until you’re in it, you’re just a bystander.
I’m all in now. This semester, I taught feature writing and ethics. We demand a lot of our students, and they are more than up to the challenge. If there’s anything I’ve learned about millennials, particularly in the wake of last year’s presidential election, it’s that they’ll match us wit for wit, and most of them have zero patience for hypocrisy.
Theirs is the generation of transparency and accountability, the inevitable outcome of growing up with Google and the rest of the internet at their fingertips. Week after week, they bring an unsparing eye to a world in which too many in my generation dismiss them as entitled and selfabsorbed.
Nothing will make us irrelevant faster, my fellow baby boomers, than underestimating millennials, who now outnumber what remains of us.
For months now — for about 100 days, to be more precise — I’ve grown slowly but steadily more optimistic about our country’s future, despite the sense of gloom that overtook me on election night and sometimes still hovers. As I near the end of this semester, I understand better why that is.
Week after week, I am surrounded by our country’s future journalists, filmmakers and documentarians. Every time our president tries to mislead the country or demonize our profession, the majority of them are emboldened.
In word and deed, their message is clear: Take heart, America. We are here.
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and professional in residence at Kent State University’s school of journalism. She is the author of two books, including “…and His Lovely Wife,” which chronicled the successful race of her husband, Sherrod Brown, for the U.S. Senate.