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SNHU Students Expand Emotional Intelligence With Experiential Learning

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For some, helping people is at the center of their dream job. Many of the students in social sciences programs at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) are studying to become therapists, social workers or criminal justice professionals – and to do so successfully, they need emotional intelligence. A lot of it.

But what, exactly, is emotional intelligence? According to Mental Health America, emotional intelligence — or EI — involves identifying and understanding the emotions of oneself and others. An emotionally intelligent person is observant of feelings in the room and how those feelings impact everyone: in conversation, conflict resolution and decision-making.

Dr. Josh Garrin with the text Dr. Josh GarrinThis spring, eligible social sciences students had the exciting opportunity to participate in the Emotional Intelligence Experiential Learning Challenge — or EI Challenge, for short. According to Dr. Josh Garrin, who served as the lead project developer, students who chose to take part gained valuable professional development beyond the classroom.

“The EI Challenge centered on the analysis and application of core emotional intelligence (EI) skills within the workplace setting,” he said.

So, what makes EI a meaningful topic for experiential learning?

“The EI skills that we explored — self-awareness, self-regulation, social awareness, ethical judgment, motivation and empathy — enable us to become more mentally agile, emotionally flexible and socially adept with all human interactions, personal and professional,” Garrin said.

Brooke Brigham with the text Brooke Brigham Brooke Brigham, a career engagement partner for career services at SNHU, served alongside Garrin as a mentor and manager for the challenge. She shared how these EI skills translate seamlessly to job searching, making them a great focus for professional development.

“Employers are seeking problem-solving skills, the ability to work in a team and a strong work ethic on resumes,” Brigham said. “This experiential learning opportunity highlighted these competencies for our learners.”

The challenge was ungraded, giving students a space where they could explore, engage and experiment without the pressure of earning a score at the end. The result of this design was an emphasis on communication, collaboration and teamwork, each of which rose to the surface as successful outcomes for participants.

Putting EI to Work

The EI Challenge ran the length of one 8-week term and was structured like a course. It was housed in Brightspace, SNHU’s online learning platform, and content was divided into modules about different emotional intelligence topics each week. Students learned in groups, working as a team to complete the work and develop the final project.

The challenge focused specifically on emotional intelligence in the workplace, and how emotional intelligence skills can be leveraged professionally. As a first step, teams analyzed realistic workplace issues: things like discriminatory hiring practices, poor supervisory conduct and questionable employee incentive programs. Their task was to identify themes in each case, and leverage their knowledge of emotional intelligence to highlight areas of opportunity for the hypothetical employer.

From here, they got solution-focused: What plan of action could be taken to rectify this situation? What type of intervention could be designed to improve things moving forward? As they worked through each scenario, teams leaned heavily on skills like empathy, social awareness and ethical judgment in their strategizing.

“This challenge was an opportunity for participants to demonstrate how they can advocate for positive change by leveraging the organization’s greatest asset: people,” said Garrin. “They accomplished this by zeroing in on the power of communication, acknowledging implicit biases and engaging in critical discourse.”

And according to Garrin, EI themes were at the center of every conversation, strategy and intervention.

“Participants contemplated how to drive sustainable organizational change with empathy, compassion and integrity — in the most authentic way possible,” he said.

The result? Digital brochures focused on strategies for effective communication in the workplace. New and improved mission statements for organizations that needed a refreshed focus on employee well-being. Newsletters announcing more effective incentive programs, designed intentionally to enhance employee engagement.

Adrian Castillo with the text Adrian CastilloThese interventions, along with each team’s analyses and reflections, were compiled as final projects — and they were presented to a panel of real professionals.

Adrian Castillo, an EI Challenge participant currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts (BA) in Psychology with a concentration in Mental Health, said that knowing this panel was at the end of the challenge was a motivator for participating.

“The fact that our projects would be reviewed by organizations such as Adobe, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Habitat for Humanity gave me certainty that this challenge was the real deal,” he said. “This was not an opportunity to miss.”

Using Teamwork as a Tool

Qendresa Ilazi with the text Qendresa IlaziThroughout the challenge, an appreciation for the power of teamwork emerged among a number of participants. When reflecting on why she enjoyed the experience, Qendresa Ilazi ’23 — who earned her BA in Psychology with a concentration in Forensic Psychology this spring — spoke about her team.

“I have been able to learn from them as much as I have learned from the challenge itself,” she said.

Serena Burton, who is pursuing her BA in Psychology with a concentration in Forensic Psychology, agreed. She said that the experience changed her perspective on group projects.

Serena Burton with the text Serena Burton “My idea of group work is usually one person doing the majority of the work, and everyone else just taking credit for it,” Burton said. “I can say this experience definitely proved me wrong. We all pitched in, and we all stood together.”

This feeling of camaraderie resonated with student Latishia Watkins, too. Watkins, who is pursuing her BA in Human Services with a concentration in Child and Family Services, noted that her team worked hard to balance normal coursework with assignments for the challenge. They achieved this by working together.

Latishia Watkins with the text Latishia Watkins“We worked as a community with compassion and grace,” Watkins said. “Not all groups are like that, so I’m grateful.”

Castillo faced a challenge within a challenge: Multiple members of his team encountered personal difficulties and needed to drop out. He and one other teammate were the only ones left, but they persisted — and formed a great partnership.

“It was a joy collaborating,” he said. “I could always rely on Breana to play her part, and we met twice a week to ensure that our energy and work was divided in the most effective manner.”

And where there are teams, there are leaders. Garrin, who feels passionately about the multifaceted value of the challenge, shared that this was a purposeful element of the experience.

“Leadership development was a ‘silent’ goal,” he said. “EI-driven leaders are highly skilled because, unlike other leaders, they are gritty, resilient and growth minded. In each team, leaders quickly emerged — many of whom were already highly skilled at teaching their teammates how to lead authentically, compassionately and by example.”

Powerful Outcomes: Career Growth and Connection

Ebony Dyson with the text Ebony DysonFor some students, like Ebony Dyson, a glimpse into their future and the chance to make professional connections were motivating factors for participating. Dyson is currently pursuing her BA in Psychology with a concentration in Child & Adolescent Development.

“My goal is to assist organizations in enhancing their work environment,” she said. “I thought that completing a challenge that highlighted EI would help introduce me to what my future work may look like.”

Brigham, whose work in SNHU's career services department is centered on student career growth, is dedicated to providing learners with professional development opportunities like the EI Challenge.

“When considering career readiness competencies and the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE),” she said, “it is important for SNHU learners to participate in experiences that will attract potential employers and improve their skills within their specific field.”

In her opinion, the EI challenge is one such experience.

“At the conclusion of the challenge, participants received a Certificate of Completion and a career resource guide that specifically coached students on how to incorporate their learnings into their resumes, cover letters, portfolios and interviews,” Brigham said.

In the short few months since the challenge wrapped up, students like Castillo are already seeing its professional value.

“Since the conclusion of the EI Challenge, I’ve recorded a voiceover of our full presentation for the SNHU Career YouTube channel, I will be presenting before the SNHU Psychology Club — and I’m being interviewed for this article,” he said.

And for many students, participating wasn’t just a professional choice. The challenge provided an opportunity to build personal connections with peers and mentors, too.

“As online students, we rarely have the chance to work together outside of our virtual classrooms,” said Dyson. “So it's critical that we seize every chance to advance with one another.”

Garrin, who describes himself and Brigham as “mentors, resources and cheerleaders” for participants, believes the impact of this challenge reaches far beyond the walls of an online classroom. He sees immense potential in the students who participated.

“I got to connect with some empowered leaders who will one day take their skills and talents into a world that really needs them,” he said.

A degree can change your life. Find the SNHU social sciences program that can best help you meet your goals.

Abigail Mark ’23G is a writer at Southern New Hampshire University. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

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About Southern New Hampshire University

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SNHU is a nonprofit, accredited university with a mission to make high-quality education more accessible and affordable for everyone.

Founded in 1932, and online since 1995, we’ve helped countless students reach their goals with flexible, career-focused programs. Our 300-acre campus in Manchester, NH is home to over 3,000 students, and we serve over 135,000 students online. Visit our about SNHU page to learn more about our mission, accreditations, leadership team, national recognitions and awards.