SJR Column: Skills for Success, September 2018

Thousands of Illinois residents headed off to college this fall — most not at all certain how best to navigate these pivotal years. A recent op-ed piece in the New York Times by longtime reporter and columnist Frank Bruni offered wise advice to new collegians about how to best shape a college life that yields success and satisfaction beyond the higher education experience.

The suggestion that most caught my eye in Bruni’s piece was that students should insist on acquiring specific skills while in college — skills that “transcend any particular career.” Such skills, he argues, include communication, clear writing and cogent speaking, as well as storytelling, the ability to explain an idea with “shape and logic” – the art of persuasion.

I had an opportunity to explore Bruni’s premise recently with three faculty who live these convictions every day at the University of Illinois Springfield. Elizabeth Ribarsky, from the Communication department, teaches and studies interpersonal communication. Missy Thibodeaux-Thompson, a professional actor and director, teaches in the Theatre program and is directing the campus theatre production Silent Sky this term. Stephanie Hedge, Assistant Professor of English, teaches rhetoric and composition, does research on writing in digital spaces and directs the University’s first-year writing program.

“During the first week of the semester,” Stephanie says, “I taught a session on ‘Critical Reading and Writing’ where I explained to my students that good communication skills will empower them to affect change in the world.”

“Well-expressed language,” she continues, “whether oral or written, whether used in a class assignment, blogging online or messaging on your phone, is powerful! It’s about having your ideas read, understood and respected.”

According to Missy, one thing she finds so interesting and challenging in today’s age of electronic devices is getting people to make eye contact. “In Theatre classes like ‘Voice and Movement,’ we do weird stuff,” she says. “For instance, I ask students to simply stand and look closely at a partner – observing their eyebrows, making their partner smile. It gets pretty quiet, but it helps illustrate the value of paying attention and the importance of non-verbal communication.”

“I encourage all students regardless of major to take an acting class during college,” Missy continues. “You’ll walk out of the class a little taller, stronger and more comfortable with yourself.”

In Elizabeth’s “Oral Communication” class, she explains that the class is a requirement for first-years because it’s where they develop confidence to share their ideas.

“Communicating well – speaking, listening, being able to understand and make an argument — is the number one reason people get hired,” she says.

“Communication is not a soft skill. It’s intrinsically linked to effectiveness in your job and your profession.”

A report in the Washington Post a few months ago summarized Mr. Bruni’s and my UIS colleagues’ convictions: Even in high-tech environments like Google, the story explains, evidence shows the top characteristics of success include skills like communicating and listening well, possessing insights into others, and being able to make connections across complex ideas.

I’m proud to say that with the support of faculty mentors like Elizabeth, Missy and Stephanie, UIS students are acquiring those skills on the way to becoming productive citizens and University of Illinois Springfield alums!

Susan J. Koch, Chancellor of University of Illinois at Springfield

Chancellor Susan J. Koch