Developing the Soft Skills

Picture of Shelley Robbins, PhD, Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences

By Shelley Robbins, PhD
Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences

As Dean of Arts and Sciences, I frequently read reports of employer panels describing the skill set they are hoping to see in college graduates entering the job market. Almost without exception, employers are not looking for specific learning of facts that would happen in a major course. Employers are looking for broader cognitive abilities that will transfer from one project to another. More specifically, employers are looking to hire new graduates who can communicate effectively, use new data and technology to solve problems, think outside the box, and adapt to a changing world.

Instilling these “soft skills” is the challenge of today’s universities. Most programs focus on covering factual content and skills that are relevant immediately. In reality, we need to prepare our students to adapt to what their jobs will demand of them in 20 years’ time. The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) describes High Impact Practices shown to develop these soft skills. These are co-curricular opportunities for active learning that improve student engagement and help students learn in a hands-on manner. These include collaborative research with university faculty, service learning, internships, and diversity or global learning. Arts and Sciences has adopted several of these High Impact Practices.

Recent socio-political events bring me to discuss our efforts in Diversity and Global Learning. AAC&U define this High Impact Practice as one that “helps students explore cultures, life experiences, and worldviews different from their own.” For 12 years, we have been sponsoring short-term, faculty-led study abroad tours. These are 8-14 day trips abroad led by a faculty member with the intent of moving students beyond their sphere of familiarity and into the world. Groups have gone to China, Turkey, Cuba, Japan, and Morocco. Groups visiting Australia and New Zealand spent time with native peoples learning their cultural heritage. Throughout Europe, our groups have visited historical and artistic venues. We have confronted the results of intolerance in visiting sites such as Toledo, the Alhambra, and Auschwitz-Birkenau.  

Faculty presence on these tours achieves several goals. First, it allows students to have a familiar person with them as they step into an unfamiliar space. Many students would shy away from international travel if expected to undertake such an adventure on their own. Secondly, the faculty member serves to initiate conversations about experiences in the informal learning environment. Faculty encourage students to try new foods, order in the local language, or try a traditional custom. Faculty are able to prompt students to think critically about the experience they have had during the day and have conversations about the cultures in which they are immersed. This frequently leads to a reassessment of American culture and customs as well.

Research on the impact of study abroad programs has shown that the benefit to students is present regardless of the length of time spent abroad. We hope to evaluate future tours to assess the types of impact our programs are having on Holy Family students.