Oberlin Blogs

It's Good to Have a Posse

March 8, 2011

Marsha Lynn Bragg

Who are the millennials? People born between 1984 and 1993? Or those born between 1981 and 2000--the first generation to come of age in the new millennium?

According to the Pew Research Center, "Generations, like people, have personalities. Their collective identities typically begin to reveal themselves when their oldest members move into their teens and 20s and begin to act upon their values, attitudes, and worldviews.

"America's newest generation, the Millennials, is in the middle of this coming-of-age phase of its life cycle. Its oldest members are approaching age 30; its youngest are approaching adolescence."

I started to do a bit of research on millennials after a student in Oberlin's Posse group invited me to the PossePlus Retreat. Attendees at these retreats include the Posse Scholars and invited members of the larger student body, faculty, administrators, and staff. The goal is to dialogue about an important social or political issue identified by Posse Scholars. This year the group decided to discuss millennials: who this generation is supposed to be and what their collective hopes and aspirations are. In essence they talked and talked about themselves and sought to define themselves in and on their own terms.

Oberlin Posse Scholars are part of a larger network of college students who are diverse in more ways than the obvious. Hope Rehak '11 of Chicago wrote about becoming a Posse Scholar for the Oberlin Stories Project. Hope offers a first-hand explanation of who Posse is and what it does. She is a member of Posse 1, the first group recruited to attend Oberlin in 2007, which will graduate this year.

According to the Posse website, since 1989, the New York-based Posse Foundation has "identified, recruited, and trained 3,638 public high school students with extraordinary academic and leadership potential to become Posse Scholars. These students--many of whom might have been overlooked by traditional college selection processes--receive four-year, full-tuition leadership scholarships from Posse's partner institutions of higher education," of which Oberlin is a member. Posse has offices in Miami, Washington, DC, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, and Atlanta. Most important: Posse Scholars graduate at a rate of 90 percent.

The basic premise is that students who begin their college career together as a group will support each other and help one another stay in school. They are able to do this in part because of an intensive eight-month training program that takes place prior to the start of their freshman year. Once training is over, students are not only better able to handle life on campus, but have also forged strong bonds with their fellow classmates, their posse.

In my research, I discovered that millennials are coddled, pampered, entrepreneurial, self-centered, materialistic, and engaged. They were also described as ethical, sweet natured, hard working, thrifty, and public-spirited.

Among the characteristics observed by the Pew Research Center, millennials are the most ethnically and racially diverse youth in the nation's history; the least religious but the most tolerant; and the most politically progressive age group in modern history. For example, in the 2008 election, millennials voted for Barack Obama over John McCain by 66 percent to 32 percent, while adults ages 30 and over split their votes 50 percent to 49 percent, respectively. They also are on track to become the most educated Americans in history.

But let's get back to the millennials and the PossePlus retreat I attended.

During my time at the retreat, I learned a lot about this group, which helped to dispel some misconceptions that I had. Granted, only Oberlin students were present, but each had a unique, personal narrative about family, home and homeland, about college, and what they aspired to do after college. I felt privileged that they were willing to share their stories with me and allow me to observe and participate in their quest of discovery and definition.

The millennials I met didn't quite fit the descriptions I came across in my research, though a few admitted to being a bit self-indulgent and pampered. But they also see themselves as nonpartisan and open-minded in terms of their politics and worldview, hopeful about the future, ready to take on societal challenges, and eager to make big money so they can give back. They want to participate in life as it happens--not watch it from the sidelines. More are willing to consider the entrepreneurial route rather than the confines of a 9 to 5.

They care about education at every level, job opportunities, privacy, the environment, and the future of health care and health-care costs. And while many are technologically savvy (having to put the cell phone away or at least on vibrate may have been difficult for some during the retreat), I sensed that most see technology and social media as tools to connect to others--not the be all and end all. They still recognize the value of personal relationships and friendships, but tweet and text, for example, as a convenient and immediate way to stay in touch with people they care about.

And some I talked to don't mind paying their fair share to ensure that "Generation Next" gets similar or even better opportunities. Some are fearful about the future, but aren't we all? I don't take for granted that my modestly cushy life could be easily upended.

Early on in the retreat, facilitators asked participants to identify a few people within the millennial ranks who could possibly reach iconic status and represent them over time. President Barack Obama topped off the list. He represents the present and the future. He's a proven grassroots organizer and activist, skills these students find appealing. He's forward-thinking. He's youthful and youth-oriented. He's comfortable with technology and knows how to use it in everyday life. Others discussed included Lady Gaga, Facebook (though not its founder-creator Mark Zuckerberg), and Harry Potter (though not author J.K. Rowling).

I thought about some of the young activist-singers such as John Legend and Common, but they didn't make anyone's list. Go figure.

I think it is way too soon to solidify what will best represent this generation and who among them will rise to iconic status; the issues they will be willing to tackle; and the problems and crises they will solve.

I believe that each generation is defined by a crisis and their collective response to it. Many millennials were too young for 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina. And, although they are privy to unfolding events in the Middle East, I'm not sure they are united in what they believe should happen there.

I left the retreat enlightened and encouraged. While some millennials may be pampered and self-absorbed, I found many in this group to be smart, funny, contemplative, candid, open to others' ideas yet full of opinions. They reject the conventional labels that define such concepts as race, gender, and sexual orientation.

If these are the kind of young people who will lead the future, I'm confident we will be in good hands.

Similar Blog Entries