Gen Z, boomer members of ASU class bridge the years between them

Enrollees in School of Social Work’s inaugural co-generational course explore stress management together


People of different generations seated at a round table together.

ASU students and learners in the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Arizona State University, or OLLI at ASU, were enrolled in the School of Social Work's first co-generational class, where they studied stress management. Courtesy photo

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The generation gap, a popular notion since it came to the forefront in the 1960s, is still debated around kitchen tables more than half a century later, and remains a reliable source of material for sitcom writers.

One generation’s fashions or lingo can be quite confusing, if not entertaining, to another. But much of what baffled Gen Z students and baby boomer lifelong learners about each other quickly faded as they completed the same class at ASU this spring.

“I love my undergrads, but they act a little different,” said Jamie Valderrama, an associate teaching professor in the School of Social Work. Valderrama taught a group of students and older learners enrolled in the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Arizona State University in what is believed to be the school’s first class designed to be co-generational.

“But then you add (retired professionals), and then they are very attentive and polite, like being with their grandmother and grandfather,” Valderrama said. “The perspective changes.”

Class participants — whether at the start or the end of their professional careers — had ample opportunity to share their wisdom with each other while meeting twice a week, for 16 weeks, in SWU 250: The Science of Stress Management, Valderrama said.

Although offered in the social work curriculum, fewer than 2% of those enrolled in the 29 sections of the class this semester are social work majors, she said, which demonstrates most everyone is interested in reducing the amount of stress in their lives. Valderrama said she believes the co-generational course’s success will lead to more sections like it.

Both generations learned the physiology and psychology of stress, as well as how mindfulness and making certain food choices play roles in reducing it. For the older class members, some stress occurred on the first day.

Valderrama said her senior learners found coming to campus daunting at first, as they were used to taking OLLI courses off campus together in smaller settings or online.

“But now, they say they wouldn’t learn any other way than with the young people,” said Valderrama, who added that several class members want to take more courses together in the fall.

OLLI learners and ASU students in Valderrama’s class talked about what the experience of co-generational learning meant to them.

Editor's note: Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Question: Did you enroll in the class because it was co-generational, because of the topic or both?

Aiyanna Adams, ASU student: I enrolled primarily because of the topic. At first I had no idea this class was co-generational, but I’ve enjoyed it since finding out about it. The older generation that sat at my table always provided such good insight on the topics we discussed in class.

Raymond Sol, OLLI learner: I enrolled for both reasons. Plus, I felt I could contribute some of my life experiences/expertise in the areas of health and wellness. 

Q: What did you expect from the experience of being in class with people of a different generation? Tell about how those expectations were realized or unrealized.

Roxanne Mitchell, OLLI learner: I’m always interested in other generations and how they think and whether we are similar or not. I love these Gen Z people! They were smart, kind and hardworking. I expected them to be physically attached to their phones, and they were!

Kelsey Pinta, ASU student: I thought it would be really interesting to see the different points of view. I was really excited to see how they thought what we were learning impacted their lives. 

Sol: Truly, I did not know what to expect being in a class with younger students. First of all, I was interested in learning more about the science of stress and some of the latest information. I thought the intergenerational aspect of the class would be interesting because of the age differences. Once in the class, I realized that there were differences in opinions.

Adams: I wouldn’t say I had any particular expectations. I knew that they would have different perspectives than me because of the generational gap. One time in class, we were discussing mindful eating, and one thing that was mentioned is that microwaves have been around for longer than I’ve been alive. Someone from the older generation was alive before microwaves were invented, so eating for them when they were younger looked different than eating for me did when I was younger. 

Q: From your class experience, were any commonly held beliefs about older or younger people proven true or untrue?

Sol: ... I found no differences. Basically, we were all there learning about stress management. 

Mitchell: I assumed (the ASU students) would balk at having older people in class. I was so wrong! They were very welcoming and inviting. Our differences amount to time and experience more than anything.

Pinta: I thought the older people might have some resentment towards the way the younger students acted or dressed, etc. I learned that it was actually an experience to see how each of our different lives actually had many similarities. 

Q: The class was about managing stress. Did you find the two generations primarily handle stress differently or similarly to one another? Explain.

Sol: Wow! There were differences. The first class was about exercise, the second class was about nutrition and the third class was about mindfulness. The younger students looked at exercise (as) a strength-building and/or fun sports activity. I look at exercise from a health point of view. Exercise helps keep my ... muscles and joints flexible and removes older, dead cells from my body. Same concept, that "exercise is good for you," but it’s done for different reasons, because of age differences. 

Adams: I think both generations handle stress similarly. I know for myself that when I’m stressed out, I’ll try to do things to help alleviate the stress, whether it be meditation, reading, painting, etc. The older generation had similar views about handling stress. The actual activities they participate in when stressed may be different than ones of the younger generation. But overall, we agreed that to handle stress, we would do things we enjoy.

Mitchell: The young adults were way better informed about mindfulness, diet, exercise and healthy habits than I was until the last 10 years or so.

Q: What would you tell people of your generation about what to expect from taking a class with people from a different generation?

Sol: Do it with the idea of participating in the class. I restrained myself because I felt I was talking too much. However, I now realize that my participation could have been more beneficial to everyone. 

Mitchell: Our table group has become friends. It truly enhanced my learning experience and enjoyment.

Pinta: I would tell them to embrace it and really listen, because you have a lot to learn from people who have lived a lot longer than you have.

The School of Social Work is part of the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions.

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