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Published on October 18, 2023

Generation Z Gives Me Hope

NunezThe day following Eastern’s 133rd Commencement, I announced my plan to retire as president on July 1, 2024. I fell in love with Eastern the first time I visited campus, for it was then that I knew that Eastern was more than where I wanted to be. Eastern was where I was destined to be. 

I was honored and humbled to be selected as Eastern’s sixth president, and I am profoundly grateful for the opportunity to serve this vibrant university community for 18 years. I wish to thank everyone who has taken the time to send a note, email or text. Your kindness only reminds me of how difficult it will be to leave. 

Throughout my presidency, Eastern has continued to build upon a commitment to sustainability and environmental stewardship that has been decades in the making. It features three fundamental, interrelated elements, including an academic arm (the Center for Sustainability Studies), a public outreach operation (the Institute for Sustainability) and a commitment to sustainability on campus (the Green Campus Committee and its programs). Through this multi-pronged approach, Eastern has established itself as a national Green Campus and a leader in sustainability in Connecticut. 

This role is more important than ever, as the pace of climate change accelerates and the disparities between the wealthy and poor continue to grow, leaving the most vulnerable in ever-challenging situations. 

Earlier this year I participated as a panelist for a program on the climate crisis, and I was asked what initiative, action or discovery gives me the most hope for a sustainable future. I imagine the audience thought that I would say the annual global climate summits, or perhaps the climate-related provisions of the Inflation Reduction Act. It was neither, however, for you see, it is Generation Z that gives me hope! 

Gen ZWhile members of Generation Z share many characteristics with the generation that preceded them (the Millennials), the Gen Z cohort has its own unique markers, and their lives have been shaped by a unique set of events. This generation has grown up experiencing climate change, not in some theoretical, hypothetical way, but in the here and now. The threat is very real to them; they know the language of climate change and they see its impacts on our global environment. They also see the results of years of inaction, created in part by those who continue to deny what science has been telling us for years. 

Eastern’s Gen Z students are passionate about issues they care about, and they have made it clear to me that action on climate change is one of the most important. They also view the climate crisis in terms of social and economic justice, recognizing the disproportionate burden placed on neighborhoods, communities and even entire nations. They view this lack of equity as fundamentally wrong and intolerable. 

I think back to the late 1960s and the way young people coalesced around messages of peace and equality. In the decades that followed, my generation has not worked effectively with generations of young people to rekindle the flames of hope and prosperity for all Americans. 

Generation Z gives me hope. If they can harness their passion for climate action and if they can finally bring equity to those already suffering from our ailing environment, they may one day be known as the next “Greatest Generation.” And in the process, they might just save our planet.

Written by Elsa M. Núñez