Mind-Set/Growing Up the Class of 2002: Then and Now

June 9, 2002 | By Bill Graves

When reporters from The Oregonian visited them seven years ago, they teetered on the edge of adolescence, and no one was sure where they would go.

Today, according to some observers, they are stepping into adulthood as one of the most confident and optimistic generations in the past century.

Members of the high school Class of 2002 were fifth-graders when they became the focus of a series of stories in The Oregonian. Reporters dropped by over the 1994-95 school year at five fifth-grade classrooms in Beaverton, Portland, Sublimity and Hood River. They surveyed 1,763 fifth-graders and 60 teachers across the state. The Oregonian found a group threatened by crime, broken homes, drugs and, in some cases, weak basic skills. But the 10-year-olds also exuded promising technological skills, resilience, sophistication and camaraderie.

In the survey, they expressed fears about personal violence but were generally upbeat. They loved their pets and held their parents up as heroes. Television didn’t even make their top-10 list for ways to have fun. They liked playing sports, riding bikes, eating pizza, reading scary books. They dreamed of becoming star athletes, teachers, doctors, policemen and lawyers.

In many ways, they haven’t changed as they prepare to go to college and act on their dreams.

“It really does seem like everyone has a goal and determination to make it happen,” said Shaina Sullivan, 18, a senior at West Linn High, who launched a program this year to teach children how to respect the environment.

“They have an optimistic attitude,” said Julie McDevitt, 34, senior adviser and science teacher at West Linn High. “They just seem to love life.”

They were 5 when the Berlin Wall collapsed and 7 when the Gulf War exploded; the personal computer came of age as they did.

They’ve seen their classes grow more diverse and crowded during a period of explosive growth. They’ve seen unprecedented prosperity and unprecedented terror, ranging from the Oklahoma City bombing, to school shootings at Thurston and Columbine high schools to the Sept. 11 suicide attacks.

They form the leading edge of Generation Y, or the millennials, and they nearly all believe they will reach prosperity that exceeds that of their parents, said William Strauss, co-author of a book about them called “Millennials Rising.”

Overbooked schedules They have been heavily managed by their parents, most of whom are part of the post-World War II baby boom generation, Strauss said. Their biggest problem is stress from overbooked schedules, he said.

“They get along better with adults than any group of teen-agers in the history of polling,” he said.

During their turn on youth’s stage, crime, drug use, teen pregnancy and other social ills have declined, Strauss said, the reverse of trends when their parents were young.

If recent trends hold, however, about a third of them in Oregon will not graduate this spring because they have fallen behind, moved into alternative schools or dropped out.

At Beaverton’s Southridge High, The Oregonian caught up with six seniors who were part of its fifth-grade project as students in Kathy Kallio’s class at the affluent Sexton Mountain Elementary.

All six—Rick Clough, Grant Massey, Sean Murray, Andrew Aman, Jonica Smith and Joseph Jean—are headed to four-year colleges, two out of state.

In many cases, their aspirations have shifted. In fifth grade, Smith wanted to be an actress or singer, but she’ll be going to the University of Oregon this fall to study communications or architecture.

The students have discovered their independence and are asserting it. Despite adult pressure, Massey said he gave up varsity basketball this year so he could spend more time with his friends before he heads off next fall to the University of Oregon.

Future looks bright Like many of his classmates, Massey still considers his parents his heroes, especially after Sept. 11. His father is a firefighter.

The six students all envision bright futures with meaningful jobs. Murray, who’s headed for Oregon State University, wants to be a doctor. Aman may study journalism or physical therapy at the University of Oregon. Jean will study computer science at the University of Texas at Austin next year.

“I want to make an impact on whatever I do,” he said.

The students are ready to move on but reluctant to part.

“What I’m going to miss is seeing these people,” said Clough, who is bound for honors college at the University of California at Los Angeles. “I feel like life is pretty good as it is.”