Most visitors to the San Francisco Bay area take in the usual popular sights: Fisherman’s Wharf, Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz.
Not me. I am in Moraga, a small town of about 16,000 nestled in the eastern hills overlooking the Bay area. It is the home of Saint Mary’s College of California, a small liberal arts college established roughly 150 years ago.
Saint Mary’s is the venue for a one-day college fair, one of hundreds taking place across North America at this time of year.
Spring is when universities and colleges send out their admissions representatives looking for the right future students for their institutions. For students, the fairs are a chance to gather information about course offerings, admissions policies, financial aid and college life in general.
In short, they are an opportunity for students to kick the tires of their post-high school education choices.
Post-secondary schools from more than half the U.S. states, the United Kingdom, and Switzerland are represented here. So are the Canadian institutions of Queen’s, Ryerson, McGill, Waterloo and the University of British Columbia.
Why I am here and what I am doing is not important. What I am seeing here is.
The young women and men talking with the college reps are much different from those of my blackboard jungle high school days.
These are not goofy teens going through the motions of being here because someone told them to be. They are interested and focussed, asking probing questions and taking close note of the answers.
You can’t identify them by uniform dress or look-alike hairstyles. They are more diverse – more individualistic – despite all being closely connected through online culture.
Many people say today’s kids are growing up more slowly than other generations. They often are viewed as social media addicts disconnected from the real world.
I disagree completely.
So does Dr. Lisa Damour, a psychologist, author and New York Times Well Family columnist.
“Those of us who live with teenagers and are around them can see something that is different about this generation,” she said recently.
These kids have been slapped hard and toughened – and enlightened – by significant changes in our society. They know about gunfire in schools, have seen the middle class evaporating and the gap between the haves and have nots expand into a chasm.
They have watched politics in their country, and other countries around the world, turn into clown shows in which unsuitable people work for themselves and their parties instead of the common good. They are growing up in a time of massive change that has brought economic upheavals, climate change and serious environment worries, plus catastrophic human displacements.
These are kids who appear ready to work hard and create a society that is more diverse, more cooperative and less partisan. They are concerned about equality and social justice and what is happening to the global environment.
We have seen a glimpse of this new and different generation through the ‘Never Again MSD’ teen movement formed from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shootings in Parkland, Florida. Seventeen students and staff died and 14 others were wounded when a former student stalked the school halls with a semi-automatic assault rifle.
Students from the school created the Never Again movement to demand tighter, common sense gun control laws. They succeeded in getting the Florida legislature to pass laws raising to 21 the age limit for buying guns, and establishing waiting periods and background checks.
They also exposed the dark side of the National Rifle Association, which funnels money to politicians who support its interests.
Tens of thousands of teens across North America joined the movement to stop gun violence and to influence the U.S. mid-term elections this fall.
“I am fascinated by the phenomenon we are seeing in front of us, and I don’t think it’s unique to these six or seven kids who have been the face of the Parkland adolescent cohort,” says Dr. Damour.
Even more fascinating is a comment from one of the Stoneman Douglas survivors:
“We are no longer just high school students, that much is true,” Delaney Tarr wrote in Teen Vogue magazine. “We are now the future, we are a movement, we are the change."