Earlier this month, as I dispensed diplomas and handshakes in my final undergraduate commencement as a university president, I was struck by the realization that the optimistic parade of young people passing across the stage began their college
experience under a shadow large and ominous enough to swallow all hope.
The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, unfolded when these young men and women were fresh out of high school and barely settled into their residence halls-many of them far from home. It was the first time the world interfered with their lives, and they were mature enough to comprehend the implication of those events. Yet, miraculously, that comprehension never shattered their energy, optimism or enthusiasm. They’re a little quieter, perhaps, but no less resilient, a little seasoned but far from jaded.
Those qualities are just a few of the reasons I feel incredibly hopeful about the class of 2005, and why I have the strong sense they are particularly well-positioned to lead us into the future.
These “Millennials,” as we’ve come to call them, have come under fire: They don’t read enough, they spend too much time on computers, they engage in binge drinking. Of course, there’s always a small percentage for which that hand
wringing is deserved, but I have hung out with a lot of talented young people in 38 years as a professor and college administrator, and I have not found the stereotypes accurate.
The vast majority of students I have known over the years have been committed to getting the most out of their education, and this group has been no less determined to make the coursework count. Even more gratifying, they’ve understood the importance of service to others and its value to their learning.
Through volunteerism and servicelearning experiences over the last four years, these students built a real bridge between the formal instruction of the learning environment and the informal experiences that enabled them to test what they learned. In the process, these talented, resourceful young people also prepared themselves to be future leaders without knowing it. They experienced many of the kinds of things they’ll draw upon as leaders, yet they won’t even discover that part of their education until much later.
In part because of 9/11, I believe this group recognizes that, unlike 20 years ago, there are no guarantees of a rosy future. A generation ago, there seemed to be a group that felt the future was boundless, but then the bubble burst and they
became bitter and disillusioned. The students I see today know that they don’t have a lock on success, but still believe they can make it with hard work and resourcefulness. Because there are no guarantees, they recognize there are other things in life that matter besides money.
I have spent the bulk of my career in the Midwest, and I firmly believe the graduates from our region have a special quality. Call it regional chauvinism, but I detect a native decency in our young people that is refreshing, vitalizing and charming. A dean from Tufts University outside of Boston once wrote a recommendation for a student of mine from Illinois. He said the second-best thing about the student was that he was the best in a Tufts summer seminar. The best thing: He didn’t know it.
That lack of pretense, coupled with academic success and a desire to serve others, is in no short supply in Indiana. Seasoned by the experience of 9/11, seasoned by the reality that the future is not guaranteed, but still plucky and decent enough to believe that if you go after it you can get it as long as you help somebody else along the way-that is the essence of the class of 2005. Fortunate are we to put the future in their hands.
Israel is president of the University of Indianapolis.