A house course where boomers and millennials meet

April 20, 2018

Sophomore Deepti Agnihotri remembers a story one of her classmates told last year about finding her significant other, a tale that culminates in her classmate proposing over the phone. Her reactions? “

A: That was so gutsy. B: I can’t imagine anyone in my generation doing that, ever,” she says. “And C: It’s just so cool to hear people’s experiences from a different time that I wouldn’t usually get.

“And now they’ve been married for over thirty-five years,” she says.

Yes, that class—“The Millennial Perspective: Intergenerational Ethics”—isn’t the classic college seminar. The house course, co-taught by Agnihotri and senior Rachel Gallegos, links eight undergrads with eight students from the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Duke—or as Betsy Alden, the course’s faculty adviser for the past eighteen years, calls them, “overgrads.” It’s the only intergenerational course offered at Duke.

The idea originated soon after the Kenan Institute for Ethics sprang up in 1996. Alden ’64, who helped create the service-learning program there, says the then director wanted to design a class aimed at producing “people more intentional and reflective about making moral decisions in everyday life.” The course has steadily evolved, but it included area elders from the beginning.

Today, an undergrad and an overgrad pair up every week to lead the discussion on a hot-button issue (topics have included “Free Speech and Hate Speech,” “Womb to Tomb,” and “Technology and Privacy”). The undergrads gain perspective from individuals who grew up in the shadow of Vietnam or protested segregation, for example. “That Duke bubble is very real,” says Gallegos. Students primarily interact with their campus peers, so it’s a luxury to have such discussions with people from the community “who want to be here, who want to share.”

A large portion of overgrads have Duke connections—either as alumni, as former employees, or through family members— and while they don’t have to write final papers like the undergrads in the course, they’re engaged. “These are people who just a couple of years ago were CEOs of Fortune 500 companies,” says Garry Crites Ph.D. ’05, director of Duke’s OLLI program. “They’re used to dealing with issues on a high intellectual level.”

What can they learn, then, from undergrads? First, there’s the general benefit: “Seeing how kids think and how they address things is what keeps me optimistic,” says Matt Epstein, an overgrad in the class who’s the former executive director of both the Triangle Global Health Consortium and the Center for Child and Family Health (both of which Duke helped found). “It’s what makes the world a good place.”

And the class also updates the overgrads on some specifics. “Most of the OLLI students have grandchildren who are about the ages of the Duke students,” says Alden. (Entry to Duke OLLI courses isn’t restricted, but they’re designed for individuals over the age of fifty.) “So they want to know what’s going on in the world of campus.

“Trigger warnings and safe spaces—they’ve never heard those expressions before!”

There’s a good-natured give-and-take between the two sides, but they’re not that far apart on issues. Alden explains that, perhaps surprisingly, the more idealistic students can be less progressive than the overgrads steeped in lived experience. The class format varies, sometimes featuring student guest speakers—sharing and comparing tenets from their respective religions—or a potluck at Alden’s house, a favorite gathering. “I think this class highlights and expands upon not just having the undergrads and overgrads come together,” says first-year Wesley Pritzlaff, “but actually getting to know each other outside of the course as well.”

In a way, the potluck may be the closest thing to an exam that the course has. “I believe I remember some undergraduate saying that this is good rehearsal for next Thanksgiving,” says Alden.

The combined warmth of elders and youths necessitates a healthy dose of stubbornness. Epstein gets asked whether his opinions have changed throughout the class; he bristles.

“I wouldn’t use the word ‘opinions,’ since my existing opinions are correct, so why would I change them?” he says, to the laughs of the undergrads. “But it’s broadening how I think about things.”

  • Lucas Hubbard '14 is the Clay Felker Fellow staff writer at Duke Magazine.