A Different Kind of Involvement by Generation Z Students

Patrick O’Brien, Director Civic Engagement Student & Community Involvement, Frostburg State University

May 14, 2019

At Frostburg State University our department utilized the book Generation Z Goes to College by Corey Seemiller and Meghan Grace to launch our professional development conversation about today’s students and how we as student affairs professionals engage them on campus and about the community. This reading provided interesting insights into the impact of technology and other world issues have impacted how Generation Z have grown and developed, as well as their expectations into the 21st century. Two of the more interesting discoveries of this text were that “Nearly 90% of Generation Z students indicate having frequently engaged in community service as high school seniors. More than half of these students, however, indicate that their community service work was required as part of a class…But when it comes to actually volunteering versus planning to volunteer that number drops to 6 percent.” “Only 21 percent of Generation Z students believe that influencing the political structure is essential… [their] distaste for politics in America, coupled with their desire to create social change outside the political process, may lead them to skip the ballot box altogether.” These basic observations bring up a complicated question: How do you engage Generation Z in civic learning and service?

Over the past 2 years we have seen a decline in general student involvement in volunteerism and programs at Frostburg State University. There continues to be a smaller constituencies of dedicated students that engage in activities, student employment, student organizations, Greek life, service, democratic engagement, and leadership, however, we have seen a decline in the involvement of the larger student body. In reflecting on our reading, and in discussions with our students one of the largest factors seems to be that students today are used to an “on demand” lifestyle. This not only means that they expect resources to be available at all times, they are very much used to being able to pick exactly what they want to do, watch, listen to, etc. When you add to this their entrepreneur mentality and lack of trust within systems already in place, you have a generation of students that want to build their own experiences rather than take part in those already in place.

While the concept of students caring about what they want to do and wanting to build their own path sounds wonderful, logistically it becomes a challenge. How do we as staff encourage students to volunteer on a consistent basis, when their passion is improving education for inner-city youth and we are located 2 hours from a major city? How do we engage students in the election process when the candidate they believe in didn’t make it onto the ballot and they are apathetic about the candidates that did? How do we get students to come to a cultural focused performance, when they haven’t made that part of their experience path? In an ideal world, as student affairs staff, we would be able to develop programs that fit all of these needs, host service opportunities and organize transportation for opportunities that covered all the interest areas of our students. However, many of us are understaffed and more importantly, the funding to do something like this would be astronomical.

So how do we engage our students? How do we promote independence in our students and still get them to attend programs that, while not exactly what they demand, would have a positive impact on their overall educational experience?   When students are “encouraged” to attend events through extra credit or as a mandatory part of the syllabus we have seen time again that they enjoy themselves, want to know more, and often times return. This “shopping style” engagement concept is what students are seeking and will continue to increase now that our institutions are significantly comprised of Generation Z students. We must find a way to address this engagement issue as student affairs professionals to impact our students’ lives and their educational experience for the better.


Seemiller, C., & Grace, M. (2016). Generation Z Goes to College. John Wiley & Sons.

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