Quiet Power event held as part of Life Skills Week

Learning Life Skills

An MIT event series dedicated to the things everyone should know, but were never taught in school.

From doing taxes, to finding an apartment, to communicating effectively with a partner: Life confronts us with many moments where we realize we’re lacking some vital skills. Things everyone should know. Things that make us wonder: Why did they never teach me this in school?

To address these gaps in practical knowledge, the MindHandHeart Life Skills Working Group organized Life Skills Week to inform and empower the MIT community. Running from Feb. 27 to March 3, 15 workshops were held across campus on topics like financial literacy, conflict management, and civic participation.

Mercedes Ondik, an MIT junior majoring in brain and cognitive sciences and member of the Life Skills Working Group, proposed the week as a way to help her peers gain some of the skills she feels fortunate to have learned from her family, and develop skills she wanted to learn herself.

“Life skills were drilled into my head from a young age,” said Ondik. “My dad was adamant about teaching me how to cook healthy meals, balance a budget, and change a flat tire. Whatever he needed to do in order for us to live, I was right there next to him learning how to do it.”

She continued: “Many parents continue to play a caregiver role as their children grow up. They might do all of the cooking and cleaning, so their kids can just be kids. But this can become problematic when their children go off to college and they’re lacking important everyday skills that weren’t covered in high school.”

An initial challenge for the working group was defining the concept of life skills and selecting workshop topics. “Life skills really encompass everything,” said Meghan Kenney, assistant dean of new student programming and co-chair of the Life Skills Working Group. “It’s managing your money. It’s being a good friend and an informed citizen. It’s all of the different competencies that help people thrive in addition to or regardless of the career-based training they receive.” 

“In our community, we focus a lot on academics and preparing our students to excel in their fields,” she said. “But life skills are important too, and they need to be taught and practiced, just like an academic discipline.”

“MIT students are very capable people,” added Joseph Zimakas, a staff associate in Student Support Services and co-chair of the Life Skills Working Group. “I’m often very impressed by what they’ve learned since coming to MIT or from experiences they’ve had before — but there are always gaps in knowledge.”

“There are so many things that people don’t know or get embarrassed about not knowing. For example, some people don’t learn to drive until well after many of their peers, but can still take the opportunity to learn when it is presented to them. We don’t have to be a master at everything, but it never hurts to pick up a new skill.”

Ondik attended three Life Skills Week events on developing an effective job search strategy, financial literacy, and leading as an introvert. She received useful advice, and discovered a common thread running through the sessions was the importance of self-awareness. “Getting to know yourself is hugely important for college students,” she said. “You have to know your goals and aspirations before the nitty gritty of life skills can fall into place.”

Although the Working Group is still reviewing evaluation materials, initial reviews of Life Skills Week have been positive. “I was thrilled by the response from our community,” said Kenney. “What we’ve heard so far is that the workshops provided concrete and valuable information, and that people wished we offered more events like these.”

“What’s great about this feedback is that offices on campus are providing many of these services already, so now we’re focused on making people aware of the resources available to them. We actually brought in very few outside speakers for Life Skills Week. In true MIT fashion, we made use of the resources available to us, and most of the sessions were led by experts from within our community.”

In tandem with the event series, the Working Group members set up a booth in Lobby 10 and asked passersby what life skills they or their peers were lacking. The group is currently aggregating the responses to inform later event series and regular campus programming.

“Life Skills Week came together because of the hard work of everyone in our group,” said Kenney. “It was a true collaboration and I was glad that it was Mercedes’ idea. Many of our students have great ideas, but don’t necessarily have the capacity to implement them, so it was wonderful that we were able to respond to what she and her friends were needing.”

For more information on MindHandHeart’s working groups and ways to get involved, visit mindhandheart.mit.edu/working-groups.

Maisie O’Brien | MindHandHeart Initiative