May 14, 2019 | Hannah Ebeling

A professor, traditional college students, and adult learners sit in a circle engaged in discussion.
The grant-funded Intergenerational Connections Project is providing a rich learning environment where traditional college students and adult learners are thriving together.

“We have so much to learn from other generations.

“At Calvin, we don’t just value academic knowledge—we value shared and collective wisdom from multiple communities,” said Kristen Alford, professor of social work and sociology. 

Fostering inclusive intergenerational classrooms

The Council of Independent Colleges in partnership with the AARP Foundation awarded Kristen Alford, professor of social work and public health, and Julie Yonker, professor of psychology and public health, the Intergenerational Connections Project grant towards their intergenerational learning initiative. Both professors integrated some element of intergenerational learning into their classes, something they believe made the courses much richer. Yonker noted that the grant was instrumental in providing them adequate research and resources for the project.

“Older adults in our community tend to be marginalized,” explained Yonker. She felt this initiative would be an apt opportunity to serve a group of individuals who have not always been treated with the respect they deserve. “Older people have lived full and rich lives, and we can learn so much from them, but we don’t always take the time to,” she said.  

Since the program was so successful during its first semester in fall 2018, Alford and Yonker repeated the intergenerational learning elements of their courses during the spring semester.

Cultivating rich environments for conversation

Alford invited nine older adults to join her class, Human Behavior in the Social Environment (SOWK 350), once per week for five weeks during the lifespan portion of the course. The older adults were co-learners and contributed to class and small group discussions. “Our goal was to reach people in the community that were not already part of CALL or who maybe would not have access to Calvin traditionally,” said Alford.

The class learned about a variety of issues such as childhood trauma, harm reduction among teens, chronic disease, as well as grief and loss, in an intergenerational setting. The adults in the class were able to articulate much of the course content from their own life experience, explained Alford.

“It was really helpful to have a different perspective than maybe the traditional college students would hear. But then at the same time my college students were able to provide more input to our older adult learners on how teenagers and early adults function today,” she said. “Together we created these very vibrant conversations and gave deeper meaning to the course as a whole.”

Nurturing lifelong learners and listeners

Students in Yonker’s Health Psychology (PSYC 335) course were sent into the community alongside Tandem 365, a community partner serving older adults with limited resources. Pairs of students were matched with an older adult—often at high risk of being admitted back into the hospital—with whom they would visit weekly.

The students engaged with and discussed with their older adult friend a variety of health and wellness topics as well as served as a friendly visitor. “I’ve heard from several students that their visits are one of the things they look forward to each week,” said Yonker. “Students have this wonderful opportunity to be agents of kindness, compassion, listening, smiles, and joy—essentially agents of renewal.”

Promoting dignity and worth no matter the age

Both Yonker and Alford noted that young adulthood and older adulthood can be two of the loneliest periods in a person’s life. “You might think 'why would emerging adults and college students be lonely,' but you often feel the loneliest in a crowded room of people,” said Yonker. “One of the things I wanted to look at was if pairing older adults and students together had any effect on loneliness that older and emerging adults feel.”

Promoting the dignity and worth of a person and valuing the importance of human relationships are both values held by the sociology and social work department at Calvin. “Each of those values come into play with this project,” said Alford. “We are trying to build intergenerational relationships and show the dignity and worth of people, no matter the age.”


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