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Intergenerational learning happens on both sides of the age equation

Andre Nguyên Dietzsch, left, visits with his grandfather Nguyên Khuyen to learn about the years his grandfather spent as the editor-in-chief of Vietnam’s first English language newspaper, Viet Nam News.
Andre Nguyên Dietzsch, left, visits with his grandfather Nguyên Khuyen to learn about the years his grandfather spent as the editor-in-chief of Vietnam’s first English language newspaper, Viet Nam News. Provided by Andre Nguyên Dietzsch

For years, I wanted to teach a class called “The Young, The Restless, and The Wise.”

In my dream, it would be a course where energetic young students tackle a project for a busy (and restless) company or community leader, guided by an active retiree, still involved in the community, who has wisdom, experience, and an ability to encourage young people to do great things.

Alas, I’ve not yet coordinated the class but I am convinced that cross-generational connections are critical for communities, for companies and for universities. Perhaps because of a recent experience, I’m even more convinced of the learning that would come from such opportunities.

By accident, I recently met a young man who lives in Germany and whose mother is from Vietnam. Andre Nguyên Dietzsch was visiting his grandparents in Hanoi, and I was interviewing his grandfather for a new project. When I discovered Andre spoke German, we switched from English . Andre sat in on the interview with his grandfather, Nguyên Khuyen, who was the founding editor-in-chief for Vietnam’s first English language newspaper. This young man wanted to hear about his grandfather’s experiences and was glad to hear about a small piece of history.

I took the experience as a nice example of serendipity on several levels and figured that was the end of it. But then, Andre wrote an email once he was back in Germany. So I wrote back, asked him for his impressions of his grandfather’s comments.

We’ve continued to correspond.

What has intrigued me is that, as we got into more topics and ask more questions, I’m not just imparting my experience, I’m learning from this mature and thoughtful 18 year old in ways I don’t when I interact with older adults. (My sons are no longer in the house and I don’t teach undergrads anymore so I don’t have that ready-made group of younger minds around!). His questions and assumptions are thoughtful and refreshing, and sometimes unexpected.

Andre is just starting to shape his life and make plans for a future, including a demanding career. His questions have forced me to look back, which is new for me because I’ve been future oriented for so long. When he asks “how did you get there” questions, I realize I don’t think about those often. When I do reflect, I realize that, perhaps I’m gaining more than he is!

Maybe I should revive that class idea.

Nancy Napier is an author and distinguished professor at Boise State University; nnapier@boisestate.edu.

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