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Building Character (or Level 18 JewPro Casts Program Spell)

by Heather Paul |Oct 22, 2012|Comments

This is the second in a series of posts by Heather Paul, Jewish Life Associate/Director of Camp Kesem at Hillel at Stanford. Throughout the year, Heather will be sharing her experience as a Hillel professional taking part in the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion graduate education certificate program, which focuses on teens and emerging adults.

Heather Paul.

Most people don't reminisce about geeky, dice-rolling, role-playing adventures in grad school. I, however, couldn't help but compare Dr. Betsy Stone's social psychology lecture about character strengths to one such game I used to play - one that I should probably be ashamed to mention in a blog post: Dungeons and Dragons (D&D). In the game, participants create a team with a set of complementary skills and strengths, choosing their character's attributes from a list that includes strength, charisma, wisdom, willpower, intelligence, and perception. Many times, participants pick character attributes that have little to do with reality, providing that scrawny kid a chance to be a tough, weapon-wielding barbarian or a suave, charismatic rogue. Participants determine how their characters act and interact based on their strengths throughout an imaginary journey created by the "Dungeon Master."

So what in the world does social psychology have to do with a role-playing game typically championed by dorky teenagers? Dr. Stone gave our class at Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) a list of character strengths, as determined by psychologist Christopher Peterson in A Primer in Positive Psychology (2007). These traits, according to Peterson, "are strengths of character that a person owns, celebrates, and frequently exercises." Similar to the attributes we can choose for our D&D characters, this list includes strengths of knowledge and wisdom, of courage, of humanity, of justice, of temperance, and of transcendence. One of our assignments was to list the character strengths of a teen or emerging adult we know in our work as Jewish professionals. After reading about each other's "characters," we determined what role they would play when working together on a student or teen programming board. In the next part of the assignment, we considered how they might fare in roles that challenged them to develop different character strengths. In other words, we had the opportunity to play Game Master with our students.

The similarities don't end there. A good programming professional (or Dungeon Master) should always take the time to consider what kinds of adventures will allow students to draw on their various strengths and to grow in areas they never expected. If you want to do an outreach program, you choose to work with an outgoing, friendly, high-energy student coordinator to plan something fun. If it's time to work on a Chanukah program, you work with your Jewish life coordinator. The student who plays D&D would probably prefer to organize your board game night, not your Matzah Ball dance party.

However, while Dungeon Masters can put characters in all kinds of interesting situations, their goal may or may not move beyond having a great adventure with an exciting conclusion. As program professionals, we can choose to go in that direction too. There's always a time and a place for a fun event with a great turnout and energized atmosphere, like a barbeque or a bagel brunch. But we also have the opportunity to help our students grow, by programming specifically for character strength development. What would it look like to create a program to foster the character strengths associated with humanity - social intelligence, kindness, or love? How can we program in a way that nurtures courage - helping students be honest with themselves and each other, or encouraging them to confront challenging situations instead of avoiding them? Could we create a program that challenges students to grow in one of the character strength areas associated with "temperance" - an important one for college students, which includes prudence and self-regulation?

Many Hillels have regular programming for leadership development, and in my experience, there's always a push and pull between teaching leadership characteristics and teaching management skills, like how to run a meeting or peer-to-peer supervision. What would it mean to create a program that encourages students to develop leadership as a character strength instead?

While I can think of a few programs I've enjoyed that deal directly with character strength development, character development was not the stated objective. I organized a lunch series program for college seniors last year, in which we focused on one of the strengths categorized under "transcendence" (finding a sense of purpose) and under "courage" (bravery). As the students prepared to leave Stanford and go out into the working world, questions about who they wanted to be often conflicted with questions about what they wanted to do and how they planned to get there (purpose). We talked about how they could stand up to social and parental pressures when they wanted to choose a different direction, and how to explore multiple options, accepting the uncertainty, rather than taking an easier, pre-paved path (bravery). I developed this program after a number of conversations with seniors who expressed their concerns about the future. I didn't create this program with the specific goal of helping students develop their bravery or their sense of purpose, but to help them feel supported as they asked and tried to answer some of life's big questions.

Perhaps we focus most on character strength development in our one-on-one engagement outreach, our coffee dates and in our counseling sessions with individual students. This is wonderful, but I think students can also benefit from learning from each other's strengths and trials. It's especially important at a campus like Stanford, where students hesitate to admit when they are struggling with anything. Although this kind of programming can be difficult to facilitate, it's important to challenge ourselves, as program professionals, to develop group activities with the goal of helping our students grow as people.

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