Tucked away at the UCF Arboretum, two groups this semester have been doing more than just gardening—they’ve been forming unlikely friendships.

Eighteen participants from the local organization Seniors First and 10 University of Central Florida students together have been growing produce and herbs as part of an intergenerational farm-to-table research project. This study was led by Yun Ying “Susan” Zhong, assistant professor at the Rosen College of Hospitality Management, to help fight against aging stereotypes and create an age-diverse workforce.

“I see in hotels, restaurants, theme parks and elsewhere, many times a young employee who is in college or just graduated is now interacting with older generations and a lot of times they don’t know how to best interact with each other,” said Zhong, who has 15 years of hospitality experience ranging from front lines to management. “Perhaps they have different work values or perceptions of the world; it can create a communication issue.”

To combat those issues, Zhong created intentional opportunities for the two generations to connect at the Arboretum, as well as in the classroom. Seniors from the Learning Institute for Elders at UCF, alongside event-administration students, also planned and organized a luncheon held Nov. 21 for all project participants and their guests – about 65 people – that incorporated 15 pounds of kale, collard greens and mint that were grown at the Arboretum. The kale and collard greens paired with baked chicken, mashed potatoes, rice pilaf and salad, and the mint flavored the water.

(Photo by Rhiana Raymundo)

Through these connections, members of both generations were able to not only enjoy gardening and a meal, but also, learn from each other.

“They [seniors] are capable of more than I initially thought,” said Trenton Lam, a freshman biomedical sciences and psychology major who volunteered with the seniors at the Arboretum. “I expected we [the students] would be helping them, but they were totally into it, grabbing stuff and being like: ‘Hey, smell this!’ I ended up learning a lot from them.”

Whether in the Arboretum or in the classroom, the students were exposed to what limitations naturally come with age and how to design an environment that is considerate of those needs. For instance, in planning the luncheon, the lighting and setup were closely considered. The buffet table was placed in a more accessible part of the room, the silverware was already at the table so it was one less thing to have to carry, and the lights were made brighter, said Blakeley Sutton, a graduate student in the hospitality and tourism management degree.

“Through guided intergenerational activities, we had hoped our students would observe and see those differences in the generations and better understand how to translate that into the workforce,” Zhong said.

While the preliminary results are positive, Zhong will further analyze if this project was effective in dispelling misperceptions younger and older generations have of each other. She’ll also examine how a project such as this can be scaled up for workforce development and other intergenerational educational opportunities.

“I think I gave them [the students] respect,” said Valerie Hyatt, 75, who gardened in the Arboretum. “I love that they could look at me not as an older, confused woman, but simply as an elder.”

This project was funded by a competitive grant awarded by the Rosen College Dean’s Research Clusters Program. Together, faculty from Rosen, the Department of Health Management and Informatics, and the School of Social Work have combined expertise to also create a new bachelor’s degree in senior living management that will focus on integrating hospitality practices into senior living facilities. It is expected to launch in fall 2020.