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CLDE and Gen Z: Generational Considerations and Implications

Civic Engagement LEAD Initiative
November 2, 2018 Brooke Wilson Bellarmine University

How do we make Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement (CLDE) an integral part of the student experience? How do we help students see themselves as voters not just students who vote- normalization without minimization? We often expect students to enroll in our institutions with a civic mindset and have a decent understanding of what drives them towards civic engagement. However, just as we spend weeks and courses helping students develop study skills, time management, and how to navigate college, we cannot miss the opportunity to educate on social responsibility and CLDE.

Previously, most of my work with CLDE was through a leadership development lens and I’m continuing to critically examine the overlap and intersection of leadership, community engagement, and CLDE beyond the Social Change Model. Oftentimes we tend to see community engagement as separate from CLDE, but how might our conversations, philosophies, and programming change if we viewed them (and leadership education) as interconnected. If we’re truly developing the whole student, we should not put up invisible borders between them. CLDE does not stop when they leave the classroom or start when they stop by a table in the Quad to register to vote. In order to do this well, we must be strategic and understand who the college student is today.

Generational trends are not a new phenomenon and we probably all learned about them in our higher ed programs or a conference session. However, have we forsaken their value? I have started to consider how Gen Z might collectively feel about and approach CLDE.

According to a recent report from the Chronicle of Higher Education on Gen Z (people born between 1995 and 2012), today’s students are worried about money, anxious about what the future holds, yet more inclusive of differences in identity and experiences. It is a diverse group that grew up in “an era of school shootings, the Great Recession, the Occupy movement, protests over police brutality, and the legalization of gay marriage…” (Chronicle, 2018). While we have been focused on serving millennials, Gen Z is arriving on our campuses in declining numbers as predicted by the decrease in high school graduates. This generation is even more concerned about the value of a college degree and are more interested in an experiential, practical education.

As enrollment continues to decline, especially for four-year residential colleges, we have to think more creatively about recruitment and retention. CLDE could be one of those innovative solutions. How can we promote and provide ample, interdisciplinary opportunities for CLDE to draw today’s student to our campus and keep them connected, engaged, and retained? Ongoing educational opportunities that bring back (or forward, rather) civil discourse and foster social responsibility. This is where dialogue, community conversations, and partnerships across campus are invaluable. To help our students build a civic mindset, we have to also incorporate it into the curriculum and make CLDE a year-round initiative.

One student recently told me she has thought about dropping out of school and joining a movement. While this may sound overdramatized, it is sincere. Our students are excited and serious about action and impatient when we do not provide opportunities for them to contribute, make an impact, and change their corner of the world. Without dampening their energy and momentum, we should hold up a mirror and ask them to do the work, too. The work starts within.

Our students expect to have a voice and be heard on our campuses and in our world. How are we listening? Whose voices are being heard and by whom? What are we doing personally and professionally to develop greater cultural humility and stay current on the issues impacting our students (and colleagues)? How do we support and encourage students to take ownership over their own experience and be co-creators of a democratically engaged culture? What mediums and platforms exist for students to exercise their rights and take action? How are we preparing students for what CLDE looks like beyond the ivory tower?


The new generation of students: How colleges can recruit, teach, and serve Gen Z. (2018, September). Chronicle of Higher Education.