Across Generational Lines
Those of us at residential liberal arts institutions are used to attracting the traditional, “18-year-old fresh out of high school” student. While it’s immensely beneficial for students to embrace the residential experience and bond with peers of similar age, mentorship and wisdom from more experienced members of society lead to an enhanced perspective and a better-rounded student body.
Intergenerational interactions can help supplement a liberal arts education. What could be more valuable than an undergraduate history major hearing firsthand about the World War II experiences of a former Navy pilot? How about a senior citizen learning the ropes of online social networking from a college student? We’ve created that scenario at Ohio Wesleyan University with Austin Manor, the nation’s only intergenerational living complex on a college campus.
While the concept is relatively rare, intergenerational living is creating a buzz in higher ed. Here’s some advice for campus officials who may want to offer that option.
Engage alumni in creating the intergenerational concept. They have an existing bank of memories surrounding their college days and may consider moving back during retirement. Think about renovating a dorm or other building that already evokes nostalgia from alumni as a natural way to bond current and former students.
Austin Hall had experienced decades of wear and tear by the late 1980s when the concept of intergenerational living came to the forefront. Rather than demolish this 1920s landmark residence hall, our leaders decided to renovate it, creating a new atmosphere to connect current students and alumni.
Alumni and others, including faculty emeriti and family members of former students and faculty, helped develop the concept. The university looked first to these groups to fill the new residence, called Austin Manor. Its first two residents, former faculty members who arrived at Austin in 1988, remain today. The demographics have since expanded to include about 80 residents, split almost equally into students, retirees, and working professionals—some with no prior connection to Ohio Wesleyan.
Each group being targeted for the facility must benefit in some way. Remember, what is attractive to a college sophomore might not appeal to a 75-year-old widow. Be creative and ask residents to brainstorm “perks.”
Austin Manor’s student residents likely stumble across the site while seeking an alternative to traditional dorm living, so the apartment-style offering is attractive. The retirees are looking for a communal environment with built-in social activities and amenities close to home. And the working professionals are seeking a convenient and friendly living arrangement—almost a “second family,” as many of them are far from home.
There are also hidden benefits to living at Austin. Students are provided a link to the past and the mature guidance they might be missing from home. Retirees strengthen their connection to the university by auditing classes at Ohio Wesleyan at no cost, reenergizing their youthful thirst for learning. All residents can take part in daily and weekly activities planned by the site’s social committee. Residents get free access to the university’s lecture programs and sporting events and are involved in campus events such as Homecoming and Alumni Weekend.
We have utilized various communications vehicles to help inform others about Austin Manor’s intergenerational living atmosphere. Stories have appeared periodically in the university’s alumni-focused publication, Ohio Wesleyan Magazine, as well as on our website and in other electronic communications. Both print and broadcast media outreach has been effective, as Austin Manor is a human interest story to which people are immediately drawn. All of these tactics have helped to engage those unfamiliar with the university and reacquaint alumni with something recognizable to them.
You owe it to your constituents and the outside community to spread the word. Other institutions will be interested in learning about fresh and new ideas and—perhaps, most importantly—ways to reconnect with alumni and rejuvenate students. Don’t keep this gem a secret.
Rock Jones became president of Ohio Wesleyan University this summer.