Let’s talk about relationships. The word has romantic connotations, but in reality, relationships are central to every part of our lives, from the personal to the professional. So isn’t it surprising that there are no courses offered at Brown intended to help students develop critical soft skills — skills that one could argue are more important to our personal and professional growth than many of the technical skills we learn in our classes now? Over the last 30 years, academics across the country have created courses specifically designed to create a more holistic college experience — one that emphasizes interpersonal expertise as well as resume qualifications. Indeed, given the growing automation in today’s society, communication skills are becoming increasingly valuable in the workforce precisely because they cannot be quantified. Thus, it is about time that Brown offers soft skills training as part of its course selection.
Of course, Brown students are developing important interpersonal skills every day through their course work, extracurricular engagements and team projects. One could even argue that soft skills are not teachable — that they must be absorbed through constant human interaction and experiential learning. However, a study conducted by Boston College, Harvard and the University of Michigan found that targeted soft skills training delivers a 250 percent return on investment based on higher productivity and employee retention. Therefore, we should do away with the myth that soft skills must be developed through real world experience and are thus impossible to teach in a traditional classroom setting. There is a reason why professional recruiting places so much emphasis on behavioral interviews — companies are looking for the perfect mix of technical and interpersonal expertise. And although our courses are a great foundation for the kind of communication and leadership skills required to excel within the professional world, Brown students would benefit from Relationships 101.
The CareerLAB currently offers the closest thing to soft skills training on campus: a variety of workshops aimed at helping students prepare for and succeed at the interviewing process. These workshops are undoubtedly useful in teaching students how to best portray their skills and how to establish professional relationships with recruiters. But are they enough? Institutions such as Northeastern University have semester-long courses dedicated to teaching students professional etiquette. Meanwhile, at Brown, we often rely on peer advice when communicating with employers, as there is not always a slot open to speak with a counselor when we need guidance on email writing or informational phone calls. What’s more, once we have received our job offers, we often mistakenly believe that our work is done. There are no workshops available at the career center on building networks within a company or developing the interpersonal skills that will be critical to getting promoted. Focusing on the interviewing process exclusively is a narrow-minded approach to career counseling, and it will leave many Brown students struggling to communicate and adapt within a professional setting.
Finally, some institutions are going beyond basic interpersonal training and offering targeted courses intended to help students with romantic or personal relationships. Leslie Parrott, co-founder of the Center for Relationship Development at Seattle Pacific University, claims that research regularly shows “students are often more focused on relationship quality than their careers.” In her class, Parrott focuses on teaching students how to enter and maintain healthy romantic relationships. Other universities, such as Santa Clara University, offer courses on navigating the realities and intricacies of marriage — a lesson that is often learned after one has already walked down the aisle. Although some may believe that these courses go beyond the scope of education we should expect at Brown, it is likely that such unconventional instruction would be widely beneficial. Many students find it challenging to balance their personal and professional lives upon graduation. Curricular emphasis on relationship building could certainly improve these students’ overall quality of life.
We know that soft skills are critical to our success both in our personal and professional lives, yet we often neglect interpersonal training in favor of technical skills that we can plaster on our resumes. It is Brown’s responsibility to help students reevaluate this delicate balance. Without a healthy education in soft skills, Brown students will likely find that a perfect GPA will fall short in the workplace. The good news is that these skills are teachable and learnable — and with a few tweaks to the Brown course selection, students can dramatically improve their overall college and post-graduation experiences.
Fabiana Vilsan ’19 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and other op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.