If a college student doesn’t post their latest adventure on Instagram, did it even happen?
The short answer is no. But it’s more than “likes” that these early-20-somethings are looking for. They’re seeking to establish their brand. They are telling their story.
As a Hillel International Springboard Fellow at the University of Miami Hillel, I work with a team of millennial staff to engage Gen Z students every day. And our challenge as professionals is how do we, in partnership with Gen Z, create experiences that become integral to that story?
Gen Z has the world at their fingertips. Unlike millennials who grew up acclimating to the technological revolution, Gen Z spent their formative years immersed in the internet. They’re the sultans of social media. The head honchos of the hashtag. They are viral virtuosos. If they tap the right vein, they have access to resources that baby boomers and millennials never dreamed of. They are the translators of a language that is evolving and expanding every day.
With Gen Z at the forefront of innovation, they’re a generation with high expectations.
Here at Hillel, we initially saw these high expectations as an impossible challenge. How can we, as a Jewish organization on campus, compete with parties on South Beach or restaurants downtown? These students have their standards for experiences set high. Those standards have pushed us to dream bigger, to work harder, to be user-centric and to reach standards that have never been expected of a Hillel before.
How do you compete with parties on the beach? Throw your own. We celebrated Israel’s 70th birthday with a “Hillel Formal” at the Sagamore Hotel on Miami Beach, complete with an Israeli art exhibit, blue-and-white cupcakes, and student awards.
How do you measure up to the mega musical artists that move through town? Host talented students. We brought in one of our students’ 17-piece big band to play an “Evening of Swing” with a huge crowd to dance the night away.
How do you provide an experience to parallel a Spring Break vacay? Provide an outrageous Birthright Israel experience. Not only do we take buses full of students to Israel every season, but we created a pop-up “Museum of Birthright” in the center of campus to promote the adventure.
Our Gen Z students are not only looking for quality experiences, but also want to create them for others. And they want a return on their investment.
Gen Z has grown up in an age that is unlike any generation before them. A time where active shooter drills in the classroom have become the norm, where getting on a plane always involves taking off your shoes and a body scan, where cyberbullying is a daily occurrence.
But there has never been a generation that has reacted to struggle quite like Gen Z. Their language goes beyond traditional communication and into “meme culture.” What baby boomers might see as silly cartoons are what Gen Z is using as coping mechanisms for the pain, struggle, or disaster in their lives. During my first few weeks working in Miami, natural disaster hit, and Hurricane Irma threatened Florida. Students were panicked, booking the first flights they could find or desperately seeking carpools, and all the while, posting photos with hilarious captions to make light of the situation.
They take action. The March For Our Lives movement erupted onto the scene after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas as a result of Gen Zers who didn’t wait around for people older and more experienced than them to act. They utilized their social media savvy to mobilize the entire nation around gun violence prevention.
When it comes to the Jewish future, we’re dealing with a message that is thousands of years old. Our challenge as millennials, and now incorporating Gen Z, is to take on the role of translators and keep that message relevant to those who come next. We are charged with creating a Jewish future that we want to invest in, a future that looks bright and engaging, a future in which we want to raise our Jewish families. And that’s why our attention to, our understanding of, and our hiring of Gen Z is more crucial now than ever.
How will we know if we’re doing our jobs right? Check a Gen Z’s Instagram feed.
Rachael Cohen is the Springboard Innovation Fellow at University of Miami Hillel. The Springboard Fellowship is a two-year, transformative early career experience in the Hillel movement.