As I approach my senior year at the University of Southern California, I have experimented with and consolidated a sense of identity, learning who I want to be in this world and what I hope to do.
These lessons have come not just from textbooks and lectures, but from classes that provided me with valuable insight into my own emotions as well as the emotions of others. When I think about which classes I enjoyed—and therefore learned from—the most, two come to mind: Reading the Heart: Emotional Intelligence & the Humanities with Professor Thomas Gustafson, and The Entrepreneurial Mindset with Professor David Belasco. In thinking about the reasons I enjoyed these classes, I have come to realize that learning about emotions, challenges, and the way humans navigate them were at the heart of the courses.
In my Reading the Heart course, we had a fruitful discussion on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s, “I Have a Dream” speech, initiating dialogue on the types of emotions that would fuel a piece like that. We wrote letters of gratitude to people who unknowingly touched our lives in one way or another and read them to our chosen person. We even watched the Disney movie Inside Out (a personal favorite of mine), and had the opportunity to write in our discussion journals about our initial reactions to the film.
In my Entrepreneurial Mindset course, we heard from a variety of industry leaders about what the process was like for them to start a business. Their stories were often fueled by trial and error—instances in which they were forced to analyze complex problems and make well-informed decisions. We asked numerous questions as we articulated our thoughts on pressing ethical matters in the business world. Additionally, we created resumes that highlighted our soft skills and wrote about the kind of people we were at our core.
In the pursuit of higher education, college students are often immersed in a world of textbooks, lectures, and examinations, focusing primarily on academic knowledge and vocational skill acquisition. While this knowledge is incredibly important, I have come to understand the need for a more holistic approach to education—one that enlarges not only the minds of students but their hearts as well. These classes reminded me that academic knowledge is not (and should not) be isolated learning encounters, but is most effective and impactful when integrated with social and emotional learning (SEL).
“The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. But education that stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society. The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason but no morals. … We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education.” —Martin Luther King, Jr., at Morehouse College, 1948
Decades of research cite higher education years as a crucial developmental period. With this understanding in mind, I believe students must recognize the importance of emotions and how to use them to better inform their thinking, not hinder it.
When I think about the general tenets of SEL outlined in CASEL’s framework—self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making—I realize that these are precisely the skills I had an opportunity to foster in these classes. And for emerging adults like me, mastery of these skills is essential.
- Fostering self-awareness allowed me to make informed choices about my academic and personal pursuits. One way I exemplified this was through the creation of my own college major through the interdisciplinary major program at my school.
- Self-management was the skill that allowed me to effectively handle stress and time management as I strived for a balanced and successful college experience, making time for both academic and personal projects.
- Responsible decision-making empowered me to make ethical and sound choices at a time when I was experimenting and consolidating a sense of identity.
- Additionally, during this period I needed sound relationship skills to build meaningful connections. Whether that was making friends the first week on campus or creating a supportive network of faculty mentors, building strong relationships was so important to me during this time.
- Social awareness allowed me to better appreciate others’ perspectives in classroom discussions and recognize the needs of others.
Together, each of these skills made me a better college student and a wiser emerging adult, setting the foundation for a successful future.
While higher education has traditionally focused primarily on academic achievement and technical skills, the world that I will enter is not defined by test scores and letter grades. With the rise of AI, we’re entering an era where the skills that make us human will be more important in the workforce than ever. And as society faces pressing challenges such as social inequality, environmental injustice, and political polarization, it is evident that a holistic approach to education is paramount. The development of social and emotional competencies ensures that students are being shown where to look, not told what to see.
So, what does SEL mean to me? SEL is a shared vision to educate the heart and the mind, and that’s something young adults need, too.
Kim Villard is a senior at the University of Southern California in the interdisciplinary major program. She hopes to earn her Ph.D. in education.