Commencement season is here! As graduating millennials brace themselves for their futures, friends and families descend upon their campuses to celebrate their accomplishments. Rising juniors and seniors look ahead to their final years of school. Commencement speakers try to figure out what small pieces of wisdom they will impart to graduating seniors.
If you spend any time at or near an academic institution, you’ll inevitably hear complaints and negative stereotypes about millennials – people who reached adulthood sometime around the year 2000. They’ve been described as lazy, entitled, selfish, and shallow.
On the contrary, I think there are many reasons to be encouraged and optimistic about millennials.
Last weekend, I had the privilege of spending time with graduating medical students, as well as their fellow students who will graduate over the next few years. Friday, I talked with my Georgetown University first-year medical students about how physicians can serve as advocates in the health and human rights arena. They were eager to learn more.
I spent Saturday in Philadelphia with students from Thomas Jefferson University. There, students are establishing a clinic for asylum seekers who need medical or psychiatric documentation of torture. I spoke with them about how to objectively document physical evidence of torture.
And Sunday afternoon, I was at The George Washington University Medical Student Class of 2015 graduation. I was flattered to be asked to hood some of my graduating students.
The students I spent time with over the weekend are among some of the most compassionate, warm, and dedicated individuals I’ve ever met. They are leaders among leaders. They are advocates and activists. They are Teach for America alumni and former and active members of the military who believe in the power of nonviolence. By the time they graduated from college, several had already established nonprofit organizations devoted to social justice and healthier lifestyles.
They are people who – after a long day of class – choose to spend their evenings with me learning how to evaluate and care for torture survivors. They have established and operated clinics for patients who would not otherwise receive health care – all while being asked to learn an unimaginable volume of information. And they spend their nights and weekends organizing “White Coats for Black Lives” events. (Over the past few months, students at more than 70 medical schools across the United Stated held “die-ins” to draw attention to police brutality against people of color.)
Even though they are only in their late 20s and early 30s, many of my students have already established a long-term commitment to underserved and vulnerable populations. At the same time, they acknowledge their biases and work to overcome them. They are working to destroy myths about “us” and “them.” They are less likely to be paternalistic and more likely to respect the choices of others – whatever those choices might be. All at once, they humbly and confidently see themselves as both part of the problem and the solution.
Many of them are also working to bring animals into the fold in the quest for a just society. Last Friday, one of my students asked me how she could incorporate animal rights advocacy into her medical career – this was on her mind even as she struggled to learn all the neurological structures and mechanisms that make up the brain and nervous system.
Simply put – they are amazing. They are inspiring.
Millennials are appropriately skeptical of the world they’ve inherited. After all, they are living on a planet plagued by climate change. We are in the midst of our planet’s sixth wave of extinctions in the past half-billion years. Violence is escalating around the world, and democratic governments that were once considered open societies are crumbling.
But rather than complaining about it, they are working to change the world and bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice – from the ground up and from the top down. Despite all they are up against, according to the Pew Research Center, millennials are optimistic about the future.
Some would suggest just getting out of their way. But I don’t think that’s right. I think we should be their mentors, their champions, and their allies. Instead of complaining about milliennials, why not jump in and help them out in all the ways that matter?