What do you know about Gen Z?

What do you know about Gen Z?

By Mikayla Mace KelleyUniversity Communications
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Born between 1997 and the early 2010s, members of Generation Z comprise nearly 18% of the U.S. population
Born between 1997 and the early 2010s, members of Generation Z comprise nearly 18% of the U.S. population

The first cohort of Generation Z – also known as Gen Z, centennials or zoomers – entered college in 2015, and made up the vast majority of the student population by 2019. But after a short time in the halls of higher education, the pandemic struck, and students were sent home. Now, the newest generation has returned, and University faculty and staff are eager to understand and reconnect with this unique generation.

Born between 1997 and the early 2010s, members of Gen Z comprise nearly 18% of the U.S. population, or nearly 60 million people. This diverse generation is 52% non-Hispanic white, 25% Hispanic, 14% Black and 6% Asian American. The remaining 5% surveyed by Pew Research Center did not fall into the categories provided.

Raised by skeptical Gen X parents (born 1965-1980), in general Gen Z is full of ambitious multitaskers who are technologically connected, socially responsible, distracted, experiential and frugal. In general, their core values are openness to new experiences, resilience, realism, responsibility and inclusivity, according to an analysis by Kantar, a data consulting company that provided a Gen Z summary to University leadership.

"Gen Z is remarkably different from previous generations," Kasey Urquídez, vice president for enrollment management and dean of undergraduate admissions. "Understanding their focused academic and career goals, desired impacts on their communities and deep digital nature can help the University best serve future students. This is not a one-size-fits-all generation, and we need to be aware of their individual desires, goals and experiences to find the best fit for each student to thrive as Wildcats. Their personal success is intertwined with our University's success." 

Lo Que Pasa spoke with Urquídez and John Pollard, associate dean for academic affairs and curricular innovation in the Honors College and professor of practice in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. Both study this generation and provided insights into how to best support these students throughout their college experience.

Looking beyond

Gen Z wants to change the world and, as a result, social responsibility is a prominent value of this generation.

"Gen Z is interested in being part of something bigger than themselves and making an impact," Urquídez said.

They believe they can do that with a degree, she said, adding that to achieve this goal, it's also important that they bring their unique talents to the table.

"When we're doing recruitment," Urquídez said, "we focus on helping students see themselves as part of the Wildcat Nation, while also creating their own unique experience."

The main way this is achieved is through encouraging participation in 100% Engagement initiatives. These include activities that allow students to develop professional and personal skills. The 100% Engagement initiative started more than 10 years ago and has matured and morphed to serve this cohort's particular set of expectations for higher education.

Gen Z has practical expectations for college, such as acquiring the best education possible, securing job skills, broadening their perspectives and gaining new experiences, according to Kantar. To participate in the 100% engagement initiative, students receive a menu of options for ways to participate on campus while also working towards their larger career goals.  

Tech-savvy active learners

Members of Gen Z are tech-savvy digital natives. The switch to Zoom during the pandemic was slightly easier on them than their parents and teachers, Urquídez said, as they were raised on YouTube and are fervent DIYers.

"The use of document sharing and other communication apps is nearly ubiquitous," Pollard added. "They are really on the cutting edge of this stuff."

This doesn't mean that they prefer virtual learning overall. Even before the pandemic, only 51% of Gen Z said they learn better on their own than in a classroom, compared with 64% of millennials. While attending classes virtually, many struggled because they preferred hands-on experience.

"The students need to have that interaction," Urquídez said. "They won't be as successful by solely listening to lectures over and over."

Specifically, this generation is most responsive to collaborative, interactive learning, according to Pollard, who has been teaching for 20 years. He is an expert and advocate for evidence-based instructional practices and spearheaded the collaborative learning spaces movement on campus where traditional classrooms are transformed into spaces designed to engage students in more active learning through features such as flexible seating arrangements and various classroom technologies. 

Urquídez recommends that faculty members use a variety of teaching styles and methods so students can engage in their own way.

"Maybe students can make their own videos to demonstrate their understanding on a given topic rather than always taking multiple choice or essay style tests. It is a balance and variety is appreciated," she said.

This method does present challenges. For example, grading can be complicated.

"But this is the kind of engagement students are looking for," she said. "They believe it will set them apart and make them more successful."

It's also important to keep in mind students' technology and communication preferences.

"It's often thought that students do not want to pick up the phone, but they like personal interaction. FaceTime and Zoom are actually preferred methods of communication," according to Urquídez.

While many have tired of virtual meetings, Pollard stresses that "Zoom isn't this horrible thing."

"As educators, we can learn from this experience and take on new tricks and tools to engage with learning," he said.

Texting information and reminders is also a proven way to keep students engaged. A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself if this is something the students would be grateful to you for sending, according to EAB, a best practices firm that uses research, technology and consulting to address challenges within education.

"Instead of viewing technology as a negative, I encourage people to remember that technology is their world and the tools they have," Pollard said. "Look for ways to lean into that as part of the learning experience. At the same time, afford students the opportunity to step away from that technology and create situations where they have to go more organic."

Overall, he said, technology-based interactions pale in comparison with human-to-human interactions.

"When I came back to class this fall, I cannot tell you how excited they were to be there in person. People lined up to greet me, and there was a sense of relief and energy in the classroom."

He argues that it is more important than ever that we don't gather in physical space to just lecture to students.

"That doesn't mean lecture is a bad. It's just that it can be done online," he said.

For more resources on active learning, Pollard recommends faculty contact the Office of Instruction and Assessment. Anyone is welcome to observe his classes and can do so by contacting him directly.


Because members of this generation are so tech savvy, they expect accessible information and transparency.

"They want easy access to information so they can get questions answered 24/7. They're used to searching online, but if they have to click 20 times, that's frustrating and causes them to think the University is not a friendly place," Urquídez said.

Gen Z members find online chats helpful because it allows them to get answers on their time, which is sometimes 2 a.m. Urquídez stressed that she's not advocating that faculty members be prepared to answer questions at 2 a.m. One alternative, she said, would be to have students send in questions, or ask questions during office hours. The faculty member could answer the questions and post them in an FAQ that all students could see.

"Follow-up and follow-through are critical to this cohort of students," she said. "Since Gen Z is known to be pretty skeptical of higher education, the more we can show them the follow-through and engagement, the more secure they feel that our University was the right choice for their future."


Universities have also had to adapt in response to Gen Z's skepticism.

"Gen Z is more aware of cost and money, and they've seen their parents go through a recession, so they're more cautious about entering into debt especially," Urquídez said. "As a result, they're more focused on career outcomes."

Unlike millennials, whose main goal was college, Gen Z students instead think ahead to their career outcomes and the multiple paths that can take them there.

At an institutional level, there is a shift toward offering more certificates, digital badges, minors and other credentials that can help enhance their degree, according to Urquídez.

Mental health

Mental health considerations are fundamental to understanding, teaching and mentoring this generation. Between 2005 and 2016, there was a 30% increase in depressive episodes among teenagers, according to EAB.

"Many students are aware of their own mental health and willing to express that," Urquídez said. "Past generations would push through or back out."

Because of this, having resources available to students is critical. This extends beyond mental health specifically as well. If they need help, they will tell their peers and mentors. They readily ask for tutoring help, for example.

"This generation deals with stresses and struggles that previous generations didn't have," Pollard said. "Part of teaching now is not just about students' engagement in the construction of knowledge in active learning classroom."

For example, Pollard encourages a holistic approach to teaching – one that will help students learn to cope with stress and failure.

"They're always thinking of equity and inclusion, and we need to be there with them as we create learning environments that live up to their values and expectations," he said.

He hopes other faculty members will coach students through the kind of mindset they should have as they learn. He asks them to reflect on how they manage stress and failure.

"I share my own experiences and remind them that you can't know success without struggle," Pollard said. "This also means creating environment in the classroom where students are pushed to fail in a safe way. Once they experience it, then we can reflect on it as a component of success and move forward."

Please submit any specific questions you'd like answered about Gen Z to mikaylamace@arizona.edu. Your questions, and their answers could appear in a future LQP story.

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