Campus & Community

College adds ‘Life Skills’ to its menu

5 min read

Members of the Harvard community are authorities in game theory, Celtic poetry, and quantum mechanics — and in emergency plumbing repairs, automobile maintenance, and preparing a mean tiramisu.

Until now, students have had scant opportunity to tap the vast campus expertise that resides outside the classroom. That’s changing this year, though, with the expansion of Harvard College’s academic smorgasbord to include seminars with titles like “Car Care Basics,” “Brownies,” and “Wardrobe 101.”

These free, noncredit “Life Skills” classes, and others on topics vexing to many a twenty-something — How does health insurance work? When should I call an attorney? How do I cook salmon? — are being offered for the first time this spring by Harvard’s Office of Career Services (OCS) with initiative and leadership from a committee drawn from across the College.

“Harvard students can really benefit from a fun introduction to the ‘real world’ before having to face it,” says Julia Garrett Fox, assistant dean for life skills curriculum development. “I’m hopeful that all undergraduates will find something appealing among these classes.”

To date, the response suggests that a chord has indeed been struck: Most of the inaugural Life Skills sessions, which accommodate 12 to 40 students and run one to two hours, have filled to capacity, with waitlists established for some classes and others slated to repeat due to popular demand.

“The response so far has been, in a word, gratitude,” Fox says of the 12 seminars held since Feb. 22. “A lot of students are saying, ‘Thank you for doing this.’”

The Life Skills curriculum taps the know-how of eclectic campus experts: everyone from attorneys in Harvard’s Office of the General Counsel to building managers with expertise in window and radiator repair to the chief of medicine at University Health Services. A representative of Harvard Real Estate Services will lead upcoming sessions on the local and regional rental market, the Harvard University Employee Credit Union is hosting seminars touching on credit cards, investing, and budgeting, and Harvard HR specialists are demystifying workplace benefits for tomorrow’s employees.

“Seniors and graduate students may find a class such as ‘Health Care After Harvard’ particularly useful,” Fox says. “And who doesn’t need to know about simple household repairs? Think of it — most college students in this country do live off-campus and learn how to sign a lease, pay rent, cook, clean, and fix a leaky faucet sooner than most Harvard students do.”

At one of the first Life Skills classes, a Feb. 27 session on winter car care, students crowded around the open hood of a hulking diesel pickup with two of the master technicians who keep Harvard’s fleet of some 500 buses, trucks, vans, and automobiles on the road. Fueled by cookies and hot cocoa, attendees peppered the technicians with questions both elementary (when to measure tire pressure, how to check engine oil levels, where is the battery) and complex (what to look for in buying a used car).

A session later that evening, led by chefs from the Lowell House and Hillel dining centers, saw a gaggle of first-years clustered around an island in the kitchen of Dean of Freshmen Thomas A. Dingman. Among other things, the students learned how to zest citrus fruits, whip cream, make gravy, and roast whole chickens. While preparing their evening meal, they grilled the campus chefs on how dining hall recipes are developed, how ingredients are selected and procured, and the challenges of feeding 800 dinner guests.

“It’s clear that everyone is having a blast in the cooking classes,” Fox says. These sessions, sponsored by Harvard University Dining Services, include last week’s “Tapas: Small Plates for Entertaining” and the upcoming “Global Vegetarian” (April 12 in the Pforzheimer House masters’ residence) and “Pasta Night” (April 26 in the Eliot House masters’ residence).

Former College Dean Harry R. Lewis, Gordon McKay Professor of Computer Science and Harvard College Professor, conceived of a Life Skills curriculum some years ago, and William Wright-Swadel, director of the Office of Career Services, shepherded development of the classes. For several years, OCS has sponsored a popular etiquette dinner for students — last autumn’s, at the Sheraton Commander Hotel, drew 147 faux pas-phobes — as well as regular programming about planning for the future.

“We’ve been meeting with many partners throughout the College and University, as well as speaking with our students and looking into what is offered at other schools, to think about what we could offer that students would find fun and useful,” Wright-Swadel says. “Some of the undergraduate Houses have offered ‘life seminar’ programs in the past, and we wanted to make this concept more widely available.”

The notion of such courses on college campuses is not entirely new. Students can take life skills courses for credit at Williams College and Boston College — at the former as an intersession course during a January term and at the latter as part of capstone classes offered during junior and senior year. The New School requires such a seminar during freshman year, and Brown University once offered a class called “Reality 101.” Several private companies have also seized on the life skills sector and offer similar sessions, for a fee, on participating campuses.

Harvard’s Life Skills courses, Fox says, have the added advantage of introducing students to some of the people who work behind the scenes on campus.

“In addition to learning some practical skills, it’s important to learn how to work with the people across your organization,” she says.

The Life Skills initiative complements others undertaken recently across the College, such as the Freshman Residential Education Program, which prepares new students for life at Harvard, and “$hoestring $trategies for Life @ Harvard,” a guide developed by the Harvard College Financial Aid Office to help students develop and stick to a budget.

The Life Skills curriculum is currently a pilot program; at the end of the academic year the College will analyze student feedback to determine whether to continue it next fall.