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Why the path to student success is different for Gen Z

This generation of digital natives aims to change the world. EJ Carrion explains how to engage them and support their track to success.

12 min read


Why the path to student success is different for Gen Z

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“Gen Zers want their education, their work and their communities to represent how they see themselves.” – EJ Carrion

It’s no secret that today’s students differ from other generations of young people. Not only are interests like political activism and social justice among the most salient for Gen Z, but they are avid consumers of information and fluent in the use of digital technologies. Engaging them means meeting them where they are and supporting them in ways that resonate with their unique worldviews.

EJ Carrion founded Student Success Agency with the goal of addressing the unique needs of the newest generation. The organization connects students with slightly older student mentors who inherently have a better understanding of their daily struggles and experiences.

Carrion is a top youth speaker, best-selling author, entrepreneur and thought leader on student success. SmartBrief spoke with him about the current state of student support services, what Gen Z students need to be successful, and how to engage the most tech-savvy generation of learners ever. This transcript has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.


Do you believe that digital student support can be just as effective as in-person student support? What techniques and technologies are you leveraging to give all participants the best possible experience?

I do not think digital or in-person should be seen as one or the other. They should be tied together to provide a better overall cohesive experience.

It’s kind of like communication as a whole. I enjoy communicating with my friends and family in many ways on different channels. I think in-person is better for some moments, such as holidays and special occasions, but my family group text message thread is also an enjoyable and convenient way for us to stay connected and share laughs when coming together is difficult.

I do believe digital can be just as effective as in-person and even more effective in some ways. They both have their benefits and again, should be seen as a collective approach rather than one or the other.

By adding a Digital Student Support platform, school districts increase student engagement by 500%. What makes the experience effective is that agents on our platform are proactive and checking in with students rather than waiting for students to initiate the conversation. However, we do have a high student initiate rate, which usually hovers around 40%.


“Student support” has traditionally only included academic support. How does this definition fall short of meeting student needs? What are traditional student support programs lacking?

In the same way we update the apps on our phone, we need to update our minds and what we think influencing students should look like in a digital age. We invest millions of dollars trying to help students during the short jam-packed school day, which is also their busiest time of day because they are in class. Before the internet, we had to do it this way, which creates inefficiencies and scheduling friction for principals, teachers, and counselors. This no longer has to be the case.

In a digital world, school districts should see that their support for students does not have to shut down once the final bell rings. We have to envision a world where any student anywhere can access the services they need at any time regardless of their zip code.

After school, students work on their homework, manage their relationships, deal with stress, seek out community, and look for new ways to make their lives better. When we shut down our schools, a lot of students become lost and uncertain about how to achieve these things or where to go when they need help.



One signature aspect of your performance style is that you engage students with a sense of humor, language and energy that matches their own. What advice can you give to other educators looking to improve student engagement?

From a strategy standpoint, focus less on trying to match the youthfulness of trendy students and be more authentic, which I feel many educators do an excellent job of in the classroom. The key now is to bring authenticity to our digital communication, which we were taught not to do as members of the email generation where etiquette and professionalism prevailed.

Email wants you to be clear and concise with a request or activity. It was not made to build or maintain a personable relationship. Connecting with students via text is more focused on consistent and transparent check-ins that build upon your relationship with students. You have to be okay with facilitating bite-sized micro conversations with students asking about their well-being without any outcome or request attached to your reasoning for reaching out.

From a tactical sense, beef up your emoji, meme and gif skills. The gif keyboard is an opportunity to creatively connect with students via SMS, messenger or Zoom chat.


How are Gen Z students different from previous generations? What unique opportunities and challenges do they face? What do they need to be effective?

Gen Zers inspire me with their civic activity around climate change and Black Lives Matter. Gen Z, in my experience, seems very motivated to make an impact and do it together.

GenZers are digital natives. They are comfortable and interested in meeting new people and creating new communities online with people whom they have never met in person.

This is opposite for some educators whose Facebook friend network is made up of people they have met in person. Facebook is a place to manage existing relationships, which is why Instagram and TikTok have attracted a younger crowd. They have great discovery features on their apps, which allows users to explore and find interesting people to follow.

I personally feel the two most significant challenges that Gen Zers face is finding meaning and identity. Gen Zers want their education, their work and their communities to represent how they see themselves.

They are a very service-driven group who are willing to be selfless and sacrifice power, money, and the status quo to make a better world for more people in their communities, (both off- and online). However, they are not interested in giving up their identity and fitting in a corporate culture or just settling; this is how we always do it.

The school system is the epitome of our culture, and 2020 is not allowing us to use the strategies we’ve been comfortable with in the past. For Gen Zers to be effective, we need to address trauma, mental health and purpose. We need to expose kids to unique opportunities and innovative career pathways. We need to educate them on the malleability of our future and how they have the power to mold it as humanity evolves.

We need to help them link the things they like to do and the skills they like to learn about to a long term purpose like working on climate change, immigration reform, social justice, or conscious capitalism. When we can do this in our districts, we increase motivation because how they see themselves now will link to what they like to work on, which will link to something meaningful that makes the world better. These are the kind of conversations we try to have with students as their agents.



What is an “Agent”? What does the selection process look like for this role?

Agents are digitally based near-peer mentors offering an array of comprehensive on-demand student support services designed to maximize student potential and increase their chances of achieving college, career, and life success. Agents are also a web of support for educators in the school building, helping them increase engagement, delegate tasks, and deepen their reach.

Agents represent over 150 universities and dozens of top companies across the country. They go through a strict and comprehensive selection and training process before accessing our platform to serve students. They effectively communicate with staff and guide students along the path to success.


SSA’s mentorship model was already well-suited to providing digital student support even before the coronavirus pandemic. How have you continued to adapt and improve since March?

We are continually improving on our innovative approach to support students in a digital world. The coronavirus has accelerated the need to deliver some of the most significant features for school districts facilitating distance learning in some capacity this fall.

For instance, we are building educator tools to link counselors to agents and student conversations now that in-person intervention with students is less likely to happen. We released a feature where schools can send personalized announcements for students that go directly to agents. Rather than sending a mass message, this allows school announcements to be personalized and customized as agents deliver the update in natural conversation with their students.

We also created a few free public tools like Virtual Study Hall and Support 4 All, which was an on-demand tutoring mobile number where students anywhere in the country could get help on assignments while students are learning at home during the 2020 spring semester.

The biggest challenge now is onboarding new schools during this time. Our onboarding capacity needs have increased and the process before school closures were in-person. Like everyone else, we have had to adapt to virtual onboarding, and we’ve been getting creative with making families aware of the opportunity.


How have Agent/student relationships changed amid the current global movement sparked by the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor? How have you approached the situation as CEO of a company connected with so many young people?

Many districts around the country saw disengagement and a decrease in retention post-shutdown. Engagement on our platform between students and agents remained consistent through distance learning, which helped our schools continue to serve students while at home.

Students having something that they can access from their mobile device that remains constant, especially through these challenging times, has shown to be the most effective way to connect students to their education.

What we did see change is that students are spending less time engaging with agents about schoolwork and more about the events that are going on in their lives such as financial stress within their family due to the economy, loneliness at home as they are unable to go anywhere during quarantine, and outrage due to the ongoing social injustice.

Our goal at Student Success Agency is to be an organization that lives activism and social equity within our values. With the accountability of our agents and ideas from staff, some of our first initial steps were to equip agents with resources and in-time training to support students during the aftermath of George Floyd’s death. We also created an activist fund to reimburse agents for materials they purchased for protests they attended to support the Black Lives Matter movement.

Today, we are working on adding more comprehensive diversity and inclusion training so that we are equipped to service our students around these critical conversations that need to happen for progress to be made. We compiled a public list of resources to further educate our team about racial inequality in America.



What does it take to be a good student?

Students need three things to be good students, and more importantly, great people.

  1. An environment that keeps them accountable and provides structure. This is why digital/distance learning is so hard and ineffective for most families. When we create an environment that provides structure, it teaches students how to be productive and become lifelong learners, which will be the biggest skill a student can acquire during these rapidly changing times.
  2. Advocates that create a space for students to figure out what they love and how they want to express themselves to the world. People in a child’s life often have preexisting agendas from parents, college advisers, and community members. In my experience working with students, I think this creates more anxiety and stress because students become reactionary and seek acceptance from others. Maturing is knowing who you are, what’s important to you, and creating a life around your values. Unfortunately, I think students lack this ability to create a vision for themselves because we become wired to seek approval and live our life by someone else’s guidebook. With the world changing so quickly and industries evolving faster than ever before, we have to teach students how to make their way during uncertain times and trust themselves to find solutions when no one is there to show them the way.
  3. The last thing students need is exposure. If we expand students’ social capital and experiences, they are able to truly see the full possibilities for themselves and humanity. Students from rural or low economic backgrounds have less access to industry mentors and enrichment experiences that can expand their possibilities. We have to help students see new horizons for themselves and understand they are capable of boldy building the future.


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Kanoe Namahoe, director of content for SmartBrief Education, contributed to this story.

Evan Lauterborn is audience & content development manager at SmartBrief. He focuses on subscriber growth, subscriber retention, content and managing the @SmartBrief Twitter account. Connect with him on LinkedIn.


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