Gen Z students, Boomers build bridges at CSUSB Palm Desert

·7 min read

Before the pandemic, recent high school grads and retirees — both taking courses at California State University San Bernardino's Palm Desert campus — would just walk right by one another. Lacey Kendall, who teaches communications studies at the campus, and Lou Gorfain, a volunteer at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, wanted to do something to change that.

"There were these two worlds — the old people walking around and these young kids going to Cal State — and never the twain would meet," Gorfain, 79, said. "There was the notion at OLLI that somehow we could close that gap."

Realizing her students were too busy with their classes, jobs and families to take on an additional course, Kendall created an internship program. The first cohort would plan an intergenerational forum with the goal of bringing together Generation Z (born 1997-2012) and Baby Boomer (born 1946-1964) students in conversation. The interns would then produce, edit and publish a podcast based on their findings.

Interns Ruby Ramos of Fontana, Ana Gonzales-Munoz of Cathedral City and Carolina De La Herran of Coachella met with the OLLI students during the fall semester. Their podcast on the Intergenerational Forum will air on campus radio stations in February.

"I think the most surprising thing for all of us was that we agreed on a lot more things than we thought we did," Gonzales-Munoz, a communications major interested in working in human relations, said. Ahead of the forum, Gonzales-Munoz, 23, thought their values, ideas and stories would be polarizing.

Undergraduate students at the Palm Desert Campus of California State University, San Bernardino participate in the Intergenerational Forum along with students from the Osher Lifelong Learning Center in Palm Desert, Calif., on Friday, Oct. 8, 2021. Three of the students also created a podcast about the event, which will be played on the college's radio stations in February.
Undergraduate students at the Palm Desert Campus of California State University, San Bernardino participate in the Intergenerational Forum along with students from the Osher Lifelong Learning Center in Palm Desert, Calif., on Friday, Oct. 8, 2021. Three of the students also created a podcast about the event, which will be played on the college's radio stations in February.

Finding common ground

Five older students and five younger students sat across from one another in what appeared to be a debate-style setup on Oct. 8. The forum, though, was more of a conversation.

The questions ranged from ‘What is the hardest thing your generation had to live through?’ to ‘What was the most influential artist of your generation and what did they say that affected your generation?’” Kendall said.

One of the reasons Jennifer Ridewood, 60, was interested in the forum was because: "When you retire, (the world) can get smaller." The younger students are more connected to what's going on in today's world, the Palm Desert resident said.

Topics included news consumption habits, musical influences, family values, technology, civil rights and discrimination, bullying and mental health.

"When I think of the Gen Z or the Baby Boomer generation, I think of stereotypes, obviously — just generalizations," Gonzales-Munoz said. She saw her generation as being more spontaneous and outgoing. She saw the older generation as being more strict, hardworking and conservative.

"I think they learned that we absolutely had lives — that we were still doing things," Ridewood said. The undergraduates seemed surprised to hear that she was going skydiving with her nephew over the winter holiday, Ridewood said.

Gonzales-Munoz is in school full-time and working part-time. She started working when she was 16.

"You got to hustle," she said. Translation: work hard.

She'd identified the older group of students as hardworking but not her own generation, despite her own experience that suggests otherwise.

Students from the Osher Lifelong Learning Center compare their experiences and values to undergraduate students at the Palm Desert Campus of California State University, San Bernardino during the campus' first Intergenerational Forum in Palm Desert, Calif., on Friday, Oct. 8, 2021.
Students from the Osher Lifelong Learning Center compare their experiences and values to undergraduate students at the Palm Desert Campus of California State University, San Bernardino during the campus' first Intergenerational Forum in Palm Desert, Calif., on Friday, Oct. 8, 2021.

And age wasn't the only difference between the two groups, according to Ridewood. While OLLI membership is majority white identifying, students at the Palm Desert campus are mostly Latinx, she said.

"The OLLI students are older and white and middle- to upper-class," Gorfain confirmed. The undergraduates have more diverse and varied backgrounds, especially because it is a commuter college.

"I just learned how we can communicate the same way and learn from each other," Ridewood said. The undergraduates wanted to learn how to be resilient, while some of the OLLI seniors were interested in learning more about the culture of their younger counterparts.

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"I was under the impression that we were extremely different, but we really aren't," De La Herran said. "We share a lot of similarities."

"There are a lot of experts that believe that Gen Z and the Baby Boomers have more in common than any two generations that have walked this planet at the same time," Kendall said. "And, even though they're so different in age, that day there was no facetiousness between the two."

Each side admired the other in various ways, including their participation in social movements and activism. For the undergraduates, that includes Black Lives Matter; for the OLLI students, there was the Civil Rights Movement and the Women's Movement.

"I think the greatest outcome was a bunch of students — senior students and very young students — learned that someone could look quite different from you and have the very same values," Kendall said.

The panel did lean a little to the left politically, Gorfain admitted, noting that higher education also tends to lean towards more liberal.

Whether or not this is true is unclear; however, a majority of Americans perceive colleges as being partisan environments, according to a national survey conducted by WGBH News in Boston in 2018. The survey found that 77% of respondents identified colleges as "leaning liberal."

Undergraduate students and lifelong learners came together in an attempt to bridge the gap between the two groups during the Intergenerational Forum at the Palm Desert Campus of California State University, San Bernardino in Palm Desert, Calif., on Friday, Oct. 8, 2021.
Undergraduate students and lifelong learners came together in an attempt to bridge the gap between the two groups during the Intergenerational Forum at the Palm Desert Campus of California State University, San Bernardino in Palm Desert, Calif., on Friday, Oct. 8, 2021.

Building connections

Harry Schaffner, 79, of La Quinta, had his critiques of the forum — mostly that he expected a few more accolades from his younger counterparts — but supports the idea that the two groups be brought together more.

"It felt odd for the last few years to pass undergrads in the halls of the buildings like two ships passing in the night in a shipping canal without any cognizance of each other," Schaffner said. "It’s weird."

Schaffner, who actually falls in what is called the "Silent Generation" (those born 1928-1945), thinks that the labels "are more descriptive of the times we live in than the people." His wife, who is just slightly younger than him, is considered a Baby Boomer.

De La Herran, who is a communications major, is technically a millennial — but is just a year ahead of the cutoff for Generation Z. The 25-year-old has developed a friendship with Ridewood. The two have met for coffee since the forum and continue to stay in touch.

"We're making a friendship," Ridewood said. "It's exciting to hear how her career is going and I can share how my career went and, hopefully, that will encourage her."

"We have a lot to offer as we age," she said. And, she said, seniors can learn from the younger generations too.

"They are wonderful young people who are going to be the leaders of our community," Ridewood added. "We're in good hands going forward."

De La Herran and Gonzales-Munoz are planning to lead a conversational Spanish course for the OLLI students thanks to their involvement with the forum.

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"It became more of a bonding experience," Gonzales-Munoz said.

Gonzales-Munoz said what she learned in the forum will not only impact her work in the future, but has already made a difference in how she interacts with others on a daily basis.

"I thought I was already open-minded," she said. This experience, though, has made her more accepting and mindful of stereotypes.

"We have to see people as people first, before looking at everything that makes us different," she said. Age and other differences can lead to problems in group settings but, she said, being open-minded and accepting is the first step in preventing and resolving those problems.

Want to listen to the podcast?

The two CSUSB stations will be broadcasting the podcast at noon on Saturday, Feb. 5, and Sunday, Feb 6. Listen on Coyote Radio at csusb.edu/coyote-radio or Paws Radio at csusb.edu/paws-radio.

A link to the show will be posted on the campus' website following the weekend broadcasts.

Maria Sestito covers issues of aging in the Coachella Valley. She is also a Report for America corps member. Follow her on Twitter @RiaSestito, on Instagram @RiaSestito_Reporter or email her at maria.sestito@desertsun.com.

This article originally appeared on Palm Springs Desert Sun: Osher Lifelong Learning Institute forum connects Gen Z students and Boomers

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