University of Utah students hungrily pour through the student union food court. Even with lunch on their mind, some stop and stare at an incredibly red sign that reads: “The grandparents are in, giving advice. The advice may be BAD, but it’s FREE.”
Next to the sign and table is a poster of Lucy from the Peanuts comics in her psychiatry booth. Seated behind the table are three smiling, retired professors.
They have been asked questions ranging from “how do I manage my finances” to “why do my girlfriend and I fight so much?” Other students want to know about the grandparents’ lives and careers.
A couple of candy bowls are used to lure students over.
“How are you guys doing today?” asks former associate director of the University Union and current adjunct professor Ryck Luthi. “Come over and have a piece of candy.”
As one grabs a strawberry hard candy, she remarks that her own grandmother always has these around.
The booth is put on by the University of Utah Professors Emeriti Club. The club’s president, retired economics professor Ken Jameson, said they started in the fall and have done it about six times a month. Twenty-seven grandparents, who are mostly retired university faculty, take turns running the booth.
“What it really is, is a chance to interact across generations,” Jameson said. “I think a lot of the young people have stereotypes of boomers, [that are] not very positive. And a lot of the older folks have stereotypes of Gen Z, [also] not very positive.”
The club was inspired by the “Old Coots Giving Advice” booth at the Salt Lake City Farmer’s Market.
“We keep trying to find ways that we can be helpful. And one of the things that we're very aware of is the kind of generation gap. And we think the whole educational process should really cut across generations,” Jameson said.
The grandparents are not under the impression that they have the answers to all of life’s questions or will be able to solve all of the student’s problems. They also are not mental health professionals.
“But the general kinds of things, I think we can be helpful just in providing a sounding board, asking some questions,” Jameson said. “We’re old, we have experience. We may not be very wise, but we do have experience, so we can be helpful in that way.”
Another student tells the grandparents that her father recently died. She asks how they’ve dealt with the loss of family members and kept going.
Al Church, a retired K-12 public educator and adjunct professor, tells her about not being able to attend his grandparents’ funerals. It was difficult, Church said, and so he started keeping notes about them over his life and eventually he was able to share them with his own children, who never knew his grandparents.
“There's always a hole in your life. And the older you get, like some of us, we have more holes because we lose people close to us,” Church said. “And you have to figure out, what am I going to put in that hole? Good memories. Little reminiscences that you have, mementos that you have.”
The grandparents ask about who she has to talk to about the pain she’s feeling. The student worries that talking with her family will only bring them down, but they encourage her not to keep her feelings bottled up and that sharing memories with others could even bring them joy.
“I wish I knew your dad, sounds like a lovely human being,” Church said. “You’re lucky. Some of us know students who don’t have those kinds of parent memories.”
The grandparents ask her what she’ll do today to take her mind off of her loss and she said she was going bowling. While crying, she hugs her friend who came up to the table with her and thanked the grandparents for their time.
“I’ve learned a lot just from listening to this person,” Church said after she leaves. “There’s not that much different between a younger person and an older person except years.”
Church likes the advice booth because of the relationships he has with his own mentors and those he has mentored. He wishes more people could experience intergenerational connections, and he thinks the barriers between generations are artificial.
The grandparents don’t always know the best thing to say, so they listen. Retired neurologist Kathy Alderson found herself crying when the student shared the story of losing her dad.
“I don’t know what to say, but I think the important thing is to let them talk. And it was suggested that she go to one of the counseling centers, which I think is a great idea,” Alderson said.
Computer science graduate student Ian Briggs was admiring the Peanuts poster, when the grandparents started a conversation with him. Briggs shared his fears about finding a job, especially with the uncertainty in the tech field. It was reassuring to him to hear from someone who made it through the 2008 recession.
“Later on, we talked about marriage and being told, ‘hey, you're going [on] the right path, You're doing good things.’ It was nice to hear from somebody who's experienced it,” Briggs said.
Martine Perez talked about a presentation she gave for one of her classes and was surprised by how easy it was to speak with the grandparents.
“The conversation felt more in touch, in a way. Like, everyone was kind of just on the same page conversationally versus trying to bridge a lot of gaps and have it be awkward,” Perez said.
When the students just want to chat, the grandparents joke around with them. A group comes up to the table to give the grandparents some flowers, something Church isn’t used to receiving.
“There’s a day coming in your life when you’re going to get a lot of flowers. Get used to it,” Luthi quips, prompting laughs from the students.
The grandparents are not just there to impart wisdom, they also just enjoy talking with the students. They’re amazed by how hard they work, how focused they are, how passionate and creative they are — but also how much stress they are under.
“We say we’re grandparents, but we don’t really have any expectations of them. I think we oftentimes just find ourselves cheering them on,” Jameson said.
One of the main messages Church wants to give to students is encouraging them to reach out for help.
“We want to reassure any of these students that what they're going through is just kind of a normal process. And it's ups and downs and it's complicated, but don't do it alone.”