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The Millennial Students in a Time of Crisis

November 17-18, 2006
University of the Sacred Heart and the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras
San Juan, Puerto Rico

Thomas Bonner, Jr., Chair, Department of English, Xavier University of Louisiana


The many attributes and descriptions applied to the Millennial Generation of students have emerged in the period when, for them, 9/11 is becoming a distant memory, and the advertisements during the 2006 Superbowl are recent ones. They are in academic institutions during a time of war that doesn’t seem like “wartime” and during a time when they are free to make decisions for themselves without external obligations to community or country. Most students are not under any pressure to do more than fulfill their obligations as students, enjoy their semi-independence, and think about their futures and the material acquisitions that might accompany them. The majority of these students have not been tested by natural or physical forces beyond their circumference of control.

The college students in New Orleans, however, have been tested by epic forces of nature and society during the academic year 2005-2006. It is likely that their tests will continue for the duration of their college programs. Hurricane Katrina hit the city of New Orleans on August 29, 2005, and within hours of the cessation of winds, flood waters poured through breaks in levees to cover 80 % of the city in water as deep as twelve feet. The water stayed for several weeks covering all or parts of university campuses and closing the institutions for the entire fall semester. Many students had evacuated prior to the storm, but many had not. Their experiences suggest that the millennial students about whom society seems to have so many questions are in fact reservoirs of strength, commitment, and service.

In 2006, when 3100 of our 4000 students returned to campus during the second week of January for the extension of the Fall 2005 semester, they found Xavier University a damaged island amid an urban sea of ruins. The first floors of all buildings had been flooded with up to five feet of water that lasted for two weeks. Some upper floors of high rise buildings had wind and rain damage. For three months construction workers had occupied the campus. They were the only campus residents living in trailers on the parking lots. They were still there when students returned. For a University founded for people of color, especially African Americans and Native Americans, the many Mexican workers contributed to a different milieu, despite the growing presence of Vietnamese Americans on campus. The students found campus recreational facilities limited, e.g. the gym had lost its floor; the cafés in the University Center and a classroom building had been destroyed. While the chapel could no longer be used, the small chapel in the former convent that had been converted to a conference room had been returned to its original purpose. The residence halls all had damage and were operating but in various stages of recovery. Phone service was out for several weeks, and power was inconsistent.

The end of August through the middle of January brought experiences that even the most prescient of the students had not anticipated. Freshmen thought that they were beginning their college careers at Xavier University in New Orleans and seniors were looking forward to the closing months of their undergraduate careers on a now familiar campus. Many if not most of these students found themselves on university campuses across the United States patching a semester together. In September and October they did not know whether a return to Xavier was even possible. When so many returned despite the images on CNN and other news outlets, faculty and administrators felt a powerful spirit and energy among the students. In January I was teaching a developmental writing course to freshmen, and in that context on the first day I asked them to write “postcards” of about 100 words in which they would communicate something of their pre and post Katrina experiences. Jacqueline Opara wrote about being warned about possibly “being shot at by angry and desperate people” as students were taken by bus away from the city after being in a dormitory isolated by flood waters and without power during one of the hottest months of the year. Brandy Collins, a New Orleans resident, recalled,” My Mom said that we were leaving because there was going to be a hurricane . . . . .My Dad made the decision for us to stay at home and we did. The storm did hit New Orleans . . . and we were in the middle of it; of course we got out of the house, and headed for the superdome. There were so many people that it was hard to move.”

Pre Katrina images of New Orleans from these postcards emphasize an intensity of life. Bonita Bernard wrote, “The trees and grass were a bright shade of green.” Ms. Opara adds admiringly that the foliage was “somewhat blue.” Britney Dooley remembered, “There were so many things I could do and places I could go.” Chieu Nguyen wrote, “the school was clean and organized.” Latisa Fofanah cited ”the many stores that were open right across the street from the school.” And Ms. Collins notes, “I started my first job at Dickie’s Uniform Store in the Plaza. I was so very happy, but the worst was yet to come.” Of course, the worst did come.

When the students returned in January, they returned to a different world. Michael Alfred observed, “Stores and streets once filled with life now only remind me of how daily routines once were . . . . The city is now lifeless.” Bonita Bernard described the environment as “brown” and “dull.” She continues, “There is a gate separating the [campus] from the community” with most of the houses being “boarded up” and with abandoned vehicles in the yards. Ms. Fohanah comments on the “visible water lines around the city and the school.” And Robert Garland was struck by the silence surrounding the campus. In class students commented on the strong smell of mold coming from the nearby houses. These freshmen had begun the fall in late August with the dreams and excitement of most new students, but the realities of this disaster dimmed those expectations considerably.

And yet as the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, “Nature is never spent.” These students came back when they could have gone to other universities in other places with their initial dreams still somewhat intact. Instead, they came back to Xavier University and New Orleans, a city likened by Sean Crump to a picture of destruction from World War II. Without realizing what he was doing, Mr. Crump evoked the now famous image of that war generation, the “greatest generation,” that television journalist Tom Brokaw coined and popularized in the media. These students at Xavier definitely have the stuff of which that generation was composed.

The extraordinary sense of purpose that I observed in students across the campus found articulation in my students’ own words. After acknowledging the “terrible Hurricane Katrina,” Mr. Alfred wrote, “I have returned to the city of New Orleans as an obligation to myself and my future.” Mr. Crump expands on this theme: “Although my family insisted on my not returning, I’ve realized that I’m an adult now and I have to make a choice for myself.” Xavier has always prided itself on embracing its sense of mission. Its students, like Mr. Alfred and Mr. Crump, dramatically reflect how that purpose touches individuals. The young are by their nature optimistic, life often seeming to have no horizon. Unlike many of the young, these students have seen the horizon and yet lift their eyes beyond the apparent limitation. Ms. Opara closes her card with certitude: “New Orleans will see its rainbow.” When Chieu Nguyen wrote, “The green is coming back to New Orleans, it was clear that she was describing more than the St. Augustine grass that traditionally composes the lawns and parkways of the city. And Ms. Dooley concludes, “I’m ready for the re-building to take place and hopefully the finishing can be better than . . . before.”

We have seen the names for the preceding generations rise and fall, from the Awakening Generation of 1701 to the Progressive Generation of 1843 to the Lost Generation of the 1890s, and more recently the hallowed Greatest Generation of Americans born in the early twentieth century. Tom Brokaw in his book The Greatest Generation and in subsequent volumes and television programs has both popularized and “commodified” the image of this group, describing them as “ordinary Americans” whose country “asked of them extraordinary service, sacrifice, and heroics.” Mr. Brokaw goes on to write that these Americans “went on to build Modern America—men and women whose everyday lives of duty, honor, achievement, and courage gave us the world we have today” (backflap). As a result of these encomia and hyperbole, subsequent generations are facing extraordinarily high and unfair standards of comparison. No generation born since the Greatest Generation has faced a common threat or challenge, the intensive and comprehensive nature of which has called forth the collective best in themselves.

The name “Millennial” for this one generation has only chronological implications. One could, however, parse the prompt for the subject of this symposium to see certain attributes of the generation like the tension between the individual and the group, the wider experience with electronics, and the increased roles of parents in their lives, There is no doubt that the accidentals of time distinguish generations. What would we have said of that generation born in the 1920s had the Great Depression and World War II not occurred? How can we measure the baby Boomer Generation when it faced largely divisive internal, social, and international pressures? What can we say of Generation X, born in the 1960s and 70s, who experienced doubts about the ideals and goals of American institutions and corporations? For the Millennial Generation, the term for Generation Y’s coming of age, no overwhelming challenges now or in the near future seem to be available to call them forth in a collective, measurable response. Even 9/11 has faded as a clarion call. After all, where do these young people point their rifles? Is there a common enemy after all? Are the threats more criminal or are they nation- inspired? What this generation faces are questions. The coping with questions does not bring measurable responses that reporters and essayists can describe with Homeric lines.

I believe, however, that the disaster of Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent flood have provided a microcosm of how a national threat or disaster would affect this generation and others as well. It is important to consider that New Orleans was the major city affected by this disaster and Rita, the storm that followed shortly afterwards. The entire area affected by the hurricanes extends from Southeast Texas to Southern Alabama, covering 350 linear miles, a landscape the size of Great Britain. Institutions of higher education from Mobile, Alabama to Beaumont, Texas were affected by these disasters in some way.

The students who returned to their studies at Xavier University and other local institutions in the southern “ground zero,” and the students from across the United States who came into the devastation on their holidays to assist the recovery by exposing themselves to unsanitary and often health-threatening conditions, displayed the kind of heroism and commitment attributed to the Greatest Generation. What attributes can be directed toward the Millennial Generation in New Orleans have applications for those in the region and beyond. Every generation has the capacity to rise to the great challenges. It is our responsibility as teachers and leaders to be sure that if this generation has a formidable challenge that they shall have the collective will to rely, as President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed, on “the better Angels of their nature.”

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