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Bridging the Generations

Cliff, 89, and Steven, 26, met through a campus-based workshop series called Generation Exchange, then became friends when advice and support flowed both ways

By Sarah McKinney Gibson

"There is always two-way learning that can happen between folks of different age groups," says Steven Balbo, a 26-year-old data analyst living in Littleton, Colorado.

Two men standing next to each other and smiling. Next Avenue
Cliff Shaffran, 89, a recently retired consultant, and Steven Balbo, 26, a data analyst, were matched in Generations Exchange, a program designed to share knowledge between generations.  |  Credit: Courtesy of Cliff Shaffran and Steven Balbo.

Last year, after completing his masters in economics, Balbo was looking for volunteer opportunities online when he came across Generation Exchange, a workshop series that brings college students together with older adults in the community to learn from each other.

During the first hour, the young people, called "mentors," answer questions their older colleagues have about technology. During the second hour, the older people, called "mentees," answer questions the students have about life.

"He was extremely smart but, more than that, he did things with heart."

Balbo sparked to the idea. "It was right in my wheelhouse," he says. "I enjoyed teaching my grandparents how to use their iPads, so I thought I'd enjoy doing that for a stranger, too."

He was matched with Cliff Shaffran, 89, who had recently retired after running a successful consulting business called Q3 Global and co-authoring the book "Your Mind at Work." At the time, Shaffran wanted advice on how to avoid internet scams targeting older adults and says he was lucky to be paired with Balbo.

"Steven didn't just tell me how to do something," Shaffran reflects. "He stayed with me until he could tell that I fully understood. He was extremely smart but, more than that, he did things with heart. I could tell he was mature beyond his age, so when he asked me things about business I knew I could talk to him on multiple levels."

Balbo says the professional advice he received from Shaffran has been invaluable. "I had just started my first job out of school and often felt overwhelmed," Balbo recalls. "Cliff taught me about the importance of communicating in meetings and how to present and collaborate. I lead a daily meeting and, with Cliff's help, I was able to break down what information I needed to share and use the time more effectively."

An Idea Is Born

This kind of reciprocity is baked into Generation Exchange workshops, which were launched by Matt Isola at the University of Colorado in 2018. Still a student at the time, Isola got the idea after a teacher assigned students to "pick a social problem and design a solution for it."

Isola recalled a profound experience he'd had helping Ted, a friend of his grandfather. A 94-year-old former elementary school teacher, Ted had macular degeneration that made it difficult for him to see.

"I thought I was going over there to help him, but he helped me 10 times more with life."

Isola uploaded Ted's contacts to a new iPad and taught him how to use FaceTime. Ted was able to connect with people in his life on a giant screen and see their faces more easily than he could in real life. "He was laughing and swearing and we were having such a great time," recalls Isola.

The two FaceTimed every Sunday until Ted passed away a few years later.

"I unlocked a mentor that day," Isola says. "I thought I was going over there to help him, but he helped me 10 times more with life. He affirmed that I was capable of having a transformative impact and he built my confidence. He was instrumental in supporting me to start Generation Exchange."


To date, more than 2,000 people have attended Generation Exchange workshops, and the program has partnered with other nearby colleges to host them, including Colorado State University in Fort Collins and the University of Denver. Isola wants to bring Generation Exchange workshops to college campuses all over the country.

Other Bridges Across Generations

Isola's not the only one who sees campuses as ripe for programs that forge intergenerational bonds. Other such programs include:

  • Dance Generators, an intergenerational dance company housed at the University of San Francisco that uses dance to shatter stereotypes about aging and bridge generational divides.
  • Writers Room at Drexel University in Philadelphia, a program that connects students with alumni, faculty and community members to create art for social justice.
  • HomeShare OC in Southern California, a co-housing program that matches college students struggling to afford the cost of housing with older homeowners who have a spare room available to rent.

These efforts, and many others like them, move away from age-segregated solutions to approaches that leverage each generation's strengths to break down age bias, create connections, ease loneliness and strengthen community.

Those benefits are still unfolding for Shaffran and Balbo, who is planning a YouTube tutorial session for his friend. "YouTube is a great tool to teach you how to learn," says Balbo. "I use it all the time and see how beneficial it is. I want Cliff to be able to use it, too. That's rewarding for me, to pass my knowledge along to someone else."

When asked what he'd say to other older adults considering attending a Generation Exchange workshop, Shaffran says, "You'd be mad if you don't."

Sarah McKinney Gibson
Sarah McKinney Gibson is a storytelling and media specialist at CoGenerate, a national nonprofit that brings younger and older people together to solve problems and bridge divides. Read More
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