Each new cohort of students we admit to our higher education institutions brings distinct characteristics, presenting faculty, staff and leadership new challenges and areas of concerns. Yet, with every generation comes new opportunities. These differing students allow universities to think outside the proverbial box and develop programs and services that are innovative and fresh to adapt to a new cohort of students. With Gen Z accounting for more than one third of the world’s population and close to 57% of enrolled students, it is time we focus our attention on this unique generation.
Gen Z, also known as iGen, is the generation of technology, who have never seen a world without the internet. As digital natives, their ability to use the internet as a means of acquiring knowledge and skills has drastically impacted how universities provide services and programs. Due to their immediate access to information, their average attention span is eight seconds, significantly down from 12 seconds seen in their millennial counterparts. They are more socially aware than generations before and they thrive on being a part of the culture and the global community. They struggle in the areas of social connection, having the highest levels of loneliness, which sometimes leads to depression and anxiety.
With the complexity of this generation, it’s extremely important we devise strategies and direct resources to the needs of these students. We are far past the days of in-person workshops, lectures and hours-long educational programs. We must now create a holistic culture with programs and services that focus on the individual but changes at the entire university level.
Strategy 1: Design Environments
Creating an environment that makes the healthy choice the easy choice is a broad, top-down approach to handle the diverse needs of this population.
- Policy development that speaks to culture change is one way to engage with this population. Gen Z students are described as being very socially aware and desire to be part of the action, rather than sitting back and being passive. Creating a policy such as a healthy food approach that increases composting on campus gives students an opportunity to participate in the bigger picture. It also shows the university cares not only about them as an individual student, but the environment they dwell in.
- With an increase in online connection coupled with loneliness, designing spaces in your area that encourage no cellphones but increases face-to-face interaction and connection opportunities helps to mitigate some of the health concerns faced by this generation. For instance:
- Stress-free Zone in the Gym: a location where students can destress with games, puzzles, meditation guidance, massage chairs, etc.
- Speed Friending with Recreation and Wellness: Leave a series of questions on tables with two chairs and have students meet and make new connections in a controlled environment.
Strategy 2: Develop Thriving Educational Awareness and Interventions
- Shift from general health education and focus on developing soft skills that will aid in improving personal development and academic success. Having programs and/or education campaigns that focus on coping skills, building resilience and reframing setbacks are attractive topics that these students tend to gravitate to.
- Focus on uplifting inclusive messaging. Gen Z is inundated with negativity all day, providing quick messages that are positive can counteract the other information being received.
- Engage with them through short illustrations or videos via technology such as social media. This generation is very visual. Developing quick graphically stimulating and engaging content will help your message stand out. An example of engaging content would be to add opinion polls, social media challenges and hashtags to connect to students and allow them to link with your area.
The challenges this generation faces directly impacts retention, engagement and academic success. Although, there is no singular answer, taking a holistic approach that is student-centered will positively impact student satisfaction and retention. It is vital that as a recreation and wellness/campus recreation department we aren’t afraid to change our perception and focus to align with the demands of this generation.
Want more expert insights like this sent straight to your inbox? Sign up for a digital subscription here.