When you are at an intersection, just take it!
In the past year, we shared with our Italian friends the difficulties that their children face at the early stages of their university studies, with widespread disaffection on curriculum and courses. This is particularly evidenced after the first exams, when more than 50% of the students decide to radically change their interests and the field of study, leaning toward apparently simpler disciplines.
Reasoning on the causes for such a common disaffection, we had to consider how kids get to University, which in Italy begins after a long and rigid curriculum (the so called liceo), and a final nationwide test (maturita’) held when they are already 19. Of the 13 years until graduation, the last 5 of liceo are much tougher than American high school, and extremely rigid. While humanistic studies contribute to form sense of responsibility, opinions, awareness of moral issues and they are key for the development of individual values, science is less focused, providing basic knowledge but no experimental testing.
Unfortunately, the Italian system does not value individual talent, rather, it is designed to force shared common culture: curricula are fixed (there are no elective courses) and if a kid fails few subjects (be it math, literature, chemistry, latin or history of art), he/she will be separated from his friends and will be forced to repeat the entire curriculum the next year with younger students. Competitive sport or professional art such as music or dance, do not even qualify for credits.
At the end of the 13 grades of school, at the maturita’ national test, students have to prove independent opinions, knowledge and capacity to express in written compositions, open option written tests and public presentations; the overall process may last 3-4 weeks and it is held in front of teachers lead by a president from other institutions. Passing the test allows kids to enlist to university or to professional schools.
At that point, those interested in specific studies, may have to pass a further specialist admittance test and finally get access to, let’s say, chemistry; in the following three to five years, he/she will attend only courses related to chemistry, (math, physics, statistics…). He/she will not get any credit to address minors such as philosophy, economics or anything else not directly related to chemistry.
To complicate the issue, high unemployment makes summer jobs for teenagers not appropriate, since there is widespread conviction that employing a kid may subtract paid jobs for an adult in need. So teenagers (and university students) have little experience executing a task in a work environment. While many students replace it with demanding volunteering initiatives, yet most lack the on-the-job practical learning that would help identify his/her own talent to value.
Thus, choosing a major, is a difficult decision for students with no work experience nor any idea of what would be the job that he/she could pursue after 5 years of a university level – specialist study; furthermore, the decision is with little recourse.
Many young university students, at the first failure or difficulty, discouraged by the narrow curriculum, prefer to change their field of study and begin to migrate from one major to another, loosing semesters of non qualified credits, in search of something more suitable or until they have a clear picture of what the future job will be.
In order to alleviate these insecurities, we tried to adapt the leadership lectures that we offer to Corporate Executives and at major Executive MBA schools, to university students.
In 2015 we thus invited two separate test groups of 20 (the first mostly freshmen 20-22, the second more senior college students up to young Ph graduates (23-30), with the aim of building their self confidence in problem solving and team effectiveness. We do not address individual psychological issues, which we are not entitled to; rather, we try to confront them with specific ethical, negotiations or basic economical decisions, to allow each one to measure his/her own talent and sensibility with practical issues typical of the work environment.
Mostly we utilize role play, segments of well known movies and team work exercises. The pilot workshops proved very helpful in building self esteem and in pursuing of university results; in few cases, participation to our project enhanced the start of small businesses which the young entrepreneurs have been dreaming about.
Given the positive response, we are continuing with these workshops.
In the days we spend with each group of students, we also rely on young people who happened to be successful by chance, having encountered in their path unexpected opportunities, ideas, passions that evolved in real careers, either in universities or in businesses. To capture luck, 500 years ago Italian author Macchiavelli recommended openness and receptiveness to opportunities; Italians, all of which spent a considerable part of their liceo studying the Italian Renaissance, tend to forget it more than everyone else.
Our fellow students have an opportunity to appreciate how soft skills, such as team building, capacity to generate consensus, consistency, sense of purpose and accountability, matter in a professional environment. We have a chance to consider ethics and how to build proper values within an organization, to make it possible to delegate without losing vision. After all, those are the soft skills that make the difference in a complex organization. Facilitating these workshops is enriching our team as well, because exposes us to a faster, more intuitive approach to problem solving: astonished by the experience of a young student as PR at a disco, we have now a different appreciation for classical direct marketing…
Our aim is not to replace existing structure of traditional university curricula, rather to complement with an opportunity to anticipate the awareness of what it will eventually count, once they approach professional life. In our careers, we experimented how decision making is the most relevant differentiator between high knowledge individuals and successful contributors. For this reason, we called the workshops after a line by Winnie the Pooh: when you get to an intersection, just take it. That is: from any road you come, do not expect to have everything perfect and defined in every particular detail to make your choice, just jump in it with levity and passion.
Passion is indeed a great enabler for success, and one peculiar, consistent ingredient of Italian culture!
The courses we give have been funded by margins from similar courses offered to managers and executives in large organizations. We at Netplan wish that other professionals and management consulting firms share what experienced executives and scientists have learned in their professional careers, so that the next generation will perform with better tools, stronger values and much more passion for sustainable, responsible, inclusive results.
by Dr. Alessandra Cellini
Francavilla, September 14, 2016