Wake Forest University

Generational Labels and Institutional Identity

Rethinking Admissions

Continuing the Conversation

Generational Labels and Institutional Identity

By Martha Allman

Wake Forest StudentsIn reading last week’s Chronicle article, “The Millennial Muddle,”   I found myself thinking about the many “millennials” I have interviewed over the past year as well as my own teenage daughters. Yes, I admit: most any of them can do things on the iPhone that I can’t even fathom; they get their news from a source other than the newspaper; and doubtlessly the world they live in is different from the one I inhabited in the 60’s. But can we really lump them together and assign a “generational label?”

I think not.

An aspect of “rethinking admissions” for us has been making the process more individualized. Personal interviews and expanded writing requirements on the admissions application have helped us differentiate between students, but it has also given students the opportunity to think about their individuality and how that translates into the college “fit.” I am amazed at the differences in the students I interview each day. Musicians, activists, Francophiles, inventors, liberals, conservatives, futurists — they may all be wearing the same Abercrombie shirts but I am profoundly struck by their differences of philosophy and viewpoint, interests and insights. My 9:00 interview often sees the world profoundly differently than my 11:00 interview.

Just as there is a danger in lumping young people today in categories and defining them by broad brush characteristics, there is also a danger in colleges abandoning their own individuality in the name of admissions marketing. Every university has a website filled with beautiful photography of impressive buildings and smiling faces, promises of student faculty interaction, opportunities for study abroad, service, and research, not to mention fun and friendships. Eye-catching websites, with high tech bells and whistles, wow the audience but do they succeed in differentiating one college from another? Are we abandoning our quirkiness, our distinctiveness, and our institutional personalities because we believe the market research that tells us “what students today really want?” Are we afraid if we show the world who we really are that we will no longer attract a class? Are students then in turn led to believe that all colleges of a certain “tier” are alike, and thus after applying to 20 or so, they struggle mightily with making their enrollment choice?.

As we seek to embrace diversity and inclusion in education, let us first take time to listen, to discern and to appreciate the individuality of young people. Stereotyping is dangerous and it is unfair. Then let us look closely at our own institutional identity, at the heritage and character of our individual institutions, and be courageous enough to show the world who we really are. Surely then we will attract those that share our mission and who will thrive in our diverse collegiate communities.

A young man remarked to me last week, “Once I read the questions you asked me on the admissions application, I knew this was the school for me. You obviously think about the same things I think about.” Young people are individuals. So are institutions. By recognizing and celebrating that truth, we can make our college campuses (and the world we live in) a richer place.

Martha Allman is director of admissions at Wake Forest University.

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