Thursday, April 2, 2009

Spanish Community Service Learning and Soft Skills

by Ann Abbott
There are many things that I appreciate about the University of Illinois, but these are at the top of my list:
  • The students. I get to work with smart, motivated and talented young people. I truly look forward to going to class and getting to know my students.
  • The faculty. I am surrounded by great researchers. Sometimes I view their work from afar and simply appreciate seeing great minds at work. At other times, those researchers' work can potentially connect to mine.
I saw one of those connections as I read a recent article, "Social skills, extracurricular activities in high school pay off later in life." It highlights the research of Christy Lleras, a professor of human and community development.

Although her work focuses on high school students, I believe that her findings about the importance of soft skills for future success holds true for our Spanish community service learning students as well.

Lleras is quoted as saying "that 'soft skills' such as sociability, punctuality, conscientiousness and an ability to get along well with others, along with participation in extracurricular activities, are better predictors of earnings and higher educational achievement later in life than having good grades and high standardized test scores."

What does that mean for our students? Well, most university courses force students to be punctual and conscientious--to form good study and work habits. But when we send students out to the community and require them to use both good academic habits as well as professional behaviors, we are reinforcing those soft skills even more. And in substantially different ways than you can achieve within a classroom.

Furthermore, even though academic community service learning is not an extracurricular activity, it does ask of students some of the same things that Lleras finds important in her study: leadership, teamwork and organizing one's self and others. I would add risk-taking to that list. You have to really put yourself out there--literally and figuratively--in community service learning. Breaking through the campus bubble makes many people uncomfortable, but it's a necessity in CSL. Speaking Spanish with native speakers makes many language learners uncomfortable, but it's a necessity in Spanish CSL.

In my teaching materials (and in my textbook which is taking much longer to finish than I thought!), I ask students to reflect on their work in the community and do a few things:
  1. Identify hard skills they have learned or refined in their community service learning work.
  2. Identify soft skills they have learned or refined in their community service learning work.
  3. "Translate" those skills into a format that potential employers can understand--in their resume, in a cover letter and in their answers to job interview questions.
Lleras' research tells us that social skills and extra activities are predictors of future success. If you add intentional reflection on those experiences (like the above activity asks students to do), I suspect the results would be even stronger. We've certainly seen our students succeed both in the course and after it.

I enjoyed reading about Christy Lleras' work and look forward to learning more.

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