Looking Backward to Move Forward

Reflections After a Month of Alumni Interviews

My high school graduation. Photo credit one of my parents, I assume.

Earlier this year, I had the honor of interviewing prospective college students. As I conducted interviews from my kitchen home office, I could not help feeling both uncomfortable and inadequate. How does a diploma, earned years ago, give me the right to make judgments on the sum of a student’s lifetime accomplishments, and ultimately assess the student’s admission-worthiness? How can I possibly gain enough knowledge from a 45-minute Zoom conversation to write a valuable recommendation? Should the recommendation I write based on one interview influence the course of a teenager’s future?

I chose a style for the interview that reflected my discomfort, and if anyone had lurked in the background of our Zoom sessions, it probably looked like the students were interviewing me. They showed up in business-casual outfits, while I showed up in a hoodie and pony tail, hoping to make them feel comfortable and at ease. Despite my best intents, their nervousness was palpable; after all, teenagers are still kids, living at the cusp of adulthood.

Their proximity to childhood came through in our conversations. They expressed joy and a spirit of experimentation about their outside interests, providing dimension to the bullets on their résumés. One student taught himself to snowboard down his street when a freak snowstorm hit his town, and another student exclaimed that she would spend her perfect weekend playing Monopoly with friends.

At the same time, I marveled at their maturity, emphasized by their accomplishments, drive and focus. One interview day, I read Kevin Garnett’s comment that his generation would struggle if they took the court today because talent, drive and creativity have changed the game.¹ For the first time in my life, I identified with KG, as 17-year-old me would not make today’s college admissions cut. When I was 17, I had good grades, good test scores and was a good swimmer, and I guess that was good enough.

The students I talked with had started magazines, won social impact grants and created hybrid systems to combat climate change. They were fighting period poverty, learning how to make sanitary napkins and educating teenage girls in developing countries. They were saving sea turtles, working with radiologists and participating in the Model UN.

It is easy to think that these are childhood passions. I reflect back on my younger self and remember that I, too, wanted to change the world. Back then, I could not figure out how to do this (and also did not have the confidence, drive or risk-taking nature to experiment on my own).

Research reports indicate that Gen Z is driven by purpose. They have inherited a world that is not equal enough, not clean enough and not safe enough, and they are determined to fix it. In some ways, these interviews became my primary research, as each individual interview confirmed reports I had read. Whether in their community or on a global scale, these students are already creating an impact on the world. Across different countries, different continents and different cultures, they conveyed a consistency of action that was real and persistent.

It is enough to make one hopeful, a word and a concept that has surfaced often in the last year. As I have tried to hold onto and inspire hope, I have learned there is a difference between hope and optimism, (which made me question why I had equated the two in the past). The distinction that has resonated the most with me is that optimistic people believe there is more likelihood that good things will happen, while hopeful people believe in their own agency to effect a positive outcome.²

Certainly, the pandemic gives us reasons to worry and Gen Z deserves our concern. I do not think this is overstated, but after my month of interviews, I am optimistic. I am optimistic, because I believe Gen Z has hope; already at their young ages, they are working to create a more positive future. I have hope that they will maintain this drive, this desire to change the world. As the generations who have gone before them and bestowed them with problems to fix, I have hope that we will be swept up in their efforts and be part of that change ourselves. I have hope that with our encouragement, their childhood passions will become our societal causes.

[1] Marchese, D. (2021, 5 February). Kevin Garnett Isn’t Sure His Generation Could Play in Today’s N.B.A. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/02/08/magazine/kevin-garnett-interview.html

[2] Dholakia Ph.D., U. (2017, 26 February). What’s the Difference Between Optimism and Hope? Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-science-behind-behavior/201702/whats-the-difference-between-optimism-and-hope

American living in Nürnberg, Germany. I write about expat life, culture, leadership and marketing.