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When Older Students and Younger Students Teach Each Other

The generations have much in common, plus some key differences

By Kate Schaefers, Ph.D. and Phyllis Moen

Sheila Peyraud, a newly retired tech executive, saw herself as savvy when she returned to campus last fall. Then the University of Minnesota Advanced Careers (UMAC) fellow came face-to-face with all she doesn’t know in the class What American Dream? Children of the Social Class Divide. Listening to undergraduates’ experiences changed her thinking about poverty and inequality. “This class opened my eyes. I learned how uneven the playing field is, and it is getting worse,” said Peyraud.

Older Students
UMAC fellows L-R Jeff Buchanan, Carl Adamek, Sarah Meek, Sheila Peyraud, Janet Stewart, Bill Warner  |  Credit: Compliments of Kate Schaefers and Phyllis Moen

We’d like to tell you about our program at UMAC, which brings together encore adults to explore career and volunteer options. Like Peyraud, they seek purpose in their next chapter. Notre Dame, Stanford and Harvard host these ventures, but UMAC is the first such innovation in a public university, offering a combination of interdisciplinary learning, personal renewal, and community engagement.

The University of Minnesota Advanced Careers Program

Here, classrooms become platforms for conversations across age divisions. In a broader context, UMAC aims to challenge age segregation in higher education. The program is one example of growing signs of change in college and nonprofit offerings: age-friendly universities, encore-specific programs and Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes are examples. Generations United and Gen2Gen build intergenerational ties.

At UMAC, immersive classes like the Grand Challenge curriculum confront issues that matter across generations. The Future of Work and Life in the 21 Century addresses the complexities of a workplace where job security is scarce, re-careering is common and roadmaps are lacking. Students and fellows discuss families and careers, child care and elder care, affordable housing and co-housing — all through an intergenerational lens.

Madison Smiley, a senior psychology major, is grateful for what the fellows add. “We focused on real-world problems that would be hard to do with just a college mentality. We have limited work experience,” Smiley said.

The fellows provide a context to conversations. “They helped us understand what it means to work at a company, what it means to change jobs and careers,” says Max Peterson, a junior in Technical Writing and Communication. “It was nice to have wiser folks in the room. I could pick their brains and they got us all thinking.”

Different Perspectives and Learning From Them

UMAC fellow Peyraud observes something similar from her cohort’s perspective: “We were able to have different perspectives, to say things and disagree and not be offended.”

Peyraud, who followed a linear college-to-career path, empathizes with the twists and turns that lower-income students experience. “I had one path. They have had all kinds of paths. They were so open about their lives. That wouldn’t happen in my age group or work environment,” she noted.

Carl Adamek, a corporate executive in his 50s, is struck by students’ desire to make a difference. “I was impressed by how bright they are, how these students are passionate about their future, and doing something for the greater good,” said Adamek.

Virginia Kafer, a health care strategist also in her 50s, describes how energizing the experience was for her. “I came into a room of people with cool ideas I had not heard before,” Kafer said. Speaking of the students, she added,  “They are smart and intuitive. I wanted to learn from them.”

The fellows find hope for the future from their discussions with the younger students. “These students gave me a renewed feeling of positivity in the world,” Peyraud said.

Older Students on How Today's Classes Are Different

Some fellows delight in how different classes are at college today compared to when they were undergrads. Peyraud remembers her large lectures. “The classes were one-directional, professor to student, and there was a right answer. Today’s college classes are discussion-oriented and participative, and answers are not simple,” she said.


And, Peyraud added, today’s students are open to different views. “With social issues, these students, they have opinions, we discuss them and learn from each other,” she said.

These two generations often find they are more similar than different. As Kafer puts it: “We are all at a point in our lives where we don’t know what’s next. We are all open to possibilities, and also kind of scared about that.”

But there are some ways the two generations are unalike, too. Kafer said the younger students “have different communication styles that I hadn’t considered, and they understand the rules and codes of communicating in a virtual world, and how to create relationships virtually.”

Younger Students Gain Confidence About Entering Workforce

Smiley said her experience with UMAC fellows makes her more confident about entering the workforce. “I found that I had lots of ways to connect with others of different ages, personally and professionally,” she noted.

Peterson found hearing how fellows navigated career changes very compelling. “It got us in the mindset that this is a world of plenty of potential, but we need to develop resilience in our career paths,” he said.

Throughout the semester, students fine-tune a group project, turning an idea into a solution, presenting it at a Classroom to Community Workshop. Fellows serve as mentors.

At times, career advice turns into career advocacy.

Peyraud used her work experience to coach a student through a job application. “I have networks, I can make a connection. I know there are disparities when it comes to getting jobs, and I want to help these students with resumés, making connections, and advice on business dress,” she said.

As initiatives like UMAC thrive, students of all ages will benefit from learning to communicate across generational divides,and from the mentorship that invariably follows. When diverse voices are part of the conversation, insights and innovation happen.

Kate Schaefers, Ph.D., is a leadership coach, career counselor and consultant. She specializes in encore careers — meaningful work with social impact. Read More
Phyllis Moen Professor Moen is author of Encore Adulthood: Boomers on the Edge of Risk, Renewal, and Purpose (2016). Read More
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