Gen Y: high tech and lots of shoes

Change: Students arrive for school bearing a plethora of technology hardly even thinkable a generation ago.

September 02, 2001|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

A generation ago, a freshman pulling onto the campus of the Johns Hopkins University could fit all the possessions he brought to college into the trunk of a car.

This weekend, as the freshmen moved in, the school's roadways were crowded with rented vans crammed full. Other newcomers needed caravans of cars - some sporting huge roof carriers - driving from home to handle their stuff.

A visit to the Hopkins dorms last week shows at least part of the reason - students now arrive laden with technology, not only computers but also Palm Pilots and cellular telephones, televisions and videocassette recorders, game consoles and DVD players, printers and scanners.

I was fairly far along the technological curve when I showed up in 1968, because I had a portable stereo, a KLH bought on a sale table because of a damaged speaker. It played vinyl albums, of course - even cassette tapes were still in the future - and was about the size of a small suitcase. The only other electronic device I recall was a clock radio.

What passed for word processing in those days was done on a portable Smith Corona typewriter, a high school graduation present. Books, clothes and such were in a small footlocker and a suitcase. Even a slide rule was probably somewhere down there.

Wandering the halls of my old digs in Lazear Hall, I explain my comparison study to a freshman who has arrived early. "I didn't know these dorms were that old," he says.

They are. The same cinder-block walls, the same small rooms, the same basic bed-closet-drawers-desk selection of furniture, though now they can be moved around - a generation ago, they were built-in. But the pay telephone booth at the end of the first-floor hallway that was Lazear Hall's only connection to the outside world is now a storage space because there's a phone in every room.

Students expect far more than that. Each room also has the now de rigeur high-speed Internet connection as well as a plug for cable television. (In 1968, the dorm had one TV in a communal room where we watched the Jets-Colts Super Bowl as well as the Beatles on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.)

If the last generation was the first to grow up with television, then these students are among the first to grow up with computers. They recall those quaint Apple II computers showing up at school early in their elementary years, the Internet and e-mail arriving in seventh grade.

"I think it makes us a lot more impatient," says Jennifer Baldwin, who lives just across the quad in Adams House. "We want the information right now."

She had crammed the family van to make the trip from Massachusetts, but was awaiting the delivery of her laptop computer. A boom box compact disc player occupied much of the desk. Once the computer gets there, she will be wired to the world, connected by e-mail and instant messaging to everyone from her new professors to her old high school friends.

"I even know a case of roommates who were sitting a few feet apart, but communicated by e-mail," says Jonathan Kandel, associate director of the counseling center at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Kandel has studied Internet addiction and is on the lookout for students who spend all their time online.

"It's more an evolution," he says. "The behaviors that occur with the new technologies are a little different, but is the student who is browsing the Web 18 hours a day really different from one who had his nose in a book 18 hours a day?"

Kandel says such behavior is a way of escaping, just like drinking, or even obsessive exercise.

"People at the traditional college age are going through a lot of developmental stages," he says. "They are forming their own identities, figuring out who they are and who they are not, what their careers are going to be, struggling with interpersonal relationships, particularly romantic ones. It's a difficult and painful time. That's the reason they get into all these behaviors."

The difference with the Internet, Kandel says, is that it can give people the feeling they are connected to others through chat rooms and e-mail and such, but never require them to develop the interpersonal skills they will need for the rest of their lives.

Kandel also sees technology occupying the status hierarchy role that other possessions played in the past.

"It's an evolution in the whole adolescent-vying-for-status kind of thing," he says. "It used to be who has the best car or the best stereo, now it's who has the best cell phone, the best [Palm Pilot], who has wireless on their [Palm Pilot] ... how small is your laptop, how fast if your laptop? It's a way for people to say who's cool and what's hip, to try to establish themselves."

Among the early arrivals at Hopkins, the winner in that battle is Chris Elser from South Carolina. His room on the second floor of Lazear is dominated by a 27-inch television. His laptop has a CD burner and a photo scanner. A box under his bed is full of videotaped movies that will play on the VCR. He's got a Nintendo.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.