President’s Report: Family Science Training Provides Relevant Competencies for 21st-Century Workforce and Life

Anisa M. Zvonkovic, Ph.D., NCFR President
/ Spring 2019 NCFR Report

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Lately I’ve been reflecting upon the advantages that Family Science training has given me in my work and personal life. I am sure that many of you have realized similar benefits in your varied occupations. and private lives. I’m particularly grateful to my colleagues and mentors for imparting to me rich, deep, relevant training, and to my students for helping me realize what I’ve learned from them.

It is worth making explicit the ways that Family Science education contributes to broad work and life skills. Students new to the discipline, members whose training was in another discipline, and colleagues from other fields will greatly benefit from learning about the competencies that Family Science provides. Apart from knowledge of family dynamics and families in context, I am aware of at least four major abilities formed from studying Family Science.


Systems Perspective and Systems Thinking

I don’t think you can be a Family Scientist without a working understanding of systems, both systems within the family and systems around families that affect how they work. With such deep knowledge of systems, Family Scientists are outstanding members of social service organizations because we understand both the internal dynamics of organizations and how they operate with respect to other organizations and community. For example, how many times have you noticed that you can’t help but draw a family genogram in your head rather than an organizational chart for institutions in which you are involved? As Family Scientists, we always attend to the internal relationships as well as the explicit reporting lines. Such attention makes our contributions to change in organizations much more effective than if we did not notice internal dynamics. It’s no surprise that many of my colleagues have played active roles on the boards of nonprofits in their communities. Developmentally, many of my former students have cut their teeth with professional service through activities in campus organizations, which quickly turned into serving in leadership roles around the various campuses in which they have enrolled. I do not think it’s an accident that family scientists are so involved in professional organizations. Our involvement is because of our core desire to improve the world, but it’s also because of our skills in understanding and working effectively within systems.


Developmentalists With Context

All Family Scientists have (at least a bit of) a developmentalist in them. We understand that families change over time, and we must have a working knowledge of individual development to be aware of how development affects relationships. For example, I think embracing developmental change allows me to not get too riled up by present circumstances. Ideally, it also allows me to savor the good times. Being informed by developmental perspectives means that family scientists are great mentors and advisers; we provide a perspective that is calming because we can see the long game, so to speak. Regardless of the line of work we find ourselves in, having a sense that the situation changes and rejecting a homeostatic paradigm are both helpful for adapting to change in one’s work. If I had a dollar for every time someone I supervise has said, “We’ve always done it this way,” when confronted with macro- or micro-level changes they did not support, and for which they did not feel prepared, I could buy an extra cup of tea every day! I believe that Family Scientists with developmental training are more likely to embrace change than folks in other disciplines and embracing change is a key quality in the modern workforce.

Another insight that comes from a developmental perspective is the realization that we all develop at our own pace. This realization helped me immeasurably when I was an instructor and had to assign grades. I hated for students to do poorly, but when I took a developmental perspective, it was easier to understand that the student might not have demonstrated competency at the time I was assessing them, but that did not mean the student wouldn’t get there in time. Any one of us who has received messages from former students or people we have mentored years later can relate to this idea—student or mentee development is self-guided, rarely episodic, and, in general, minimally associated with what an instructor or mentor might do.

This idea that developmental trajectories are different for each person also helps me understand diversity—to be conscious of how people act (as well as their personal histories over time) in the face of constraints in their environments. I think about constraints that stem from a mismatch between the individual and the social systems around that person, whether due to ability status or to expression of difference in a harsh environment or to disadvantage and disparities of opportunity and how those affect actions in a particular environment. Many Family Scientists like me are pulled toward action related to diversity because we understand social and physical environmental limitations that affect people’s ability to flourish, and we want to do something to remove those limitations.

I would like to think that a developmental perspective has also been helpful in my personal life—as a parent and as a partner. Taking people “where they are” is very freeing and stems from an appreciation of life-span developmentalism.


Focus on Everyday Lived Experience

Family Science is an applied science. We tend to be well trained to think “so what?” in all the roles we play. In my opinion, our applied perspective has, in the past, been associated with a bit of denigration, as if our field were somehow less pristine because we get down into the dirty aspects of everyday life. Now, however, applied science and experiential learning are all the rage, and we Family Scientists have a wealth of techniques, examples, and approaches to share with the world. We are very good at understanding and articulating the importance of everyday life. I urge Family Scientists to unhesitatingly state why everyday life matters. The rest of the world, scholars and policymakers in particular, need to hear from us to understand why everyday lived experience is important.


Aptitude for Service and Leadership

Thanks to NCFR, Family Scientists have leadership opportunities in a professional organization that is optimized for making connections with colleagues. As someone who has supervised many scholars in interdisciplinary programs over the years, I can say with confidence that the profiles of family scientists, both faculty and graduate students, are chock-full of professional service activities that exceed the profiles of faculty in other disciplines. I think this is because NCFR is “right sized”: There are three professional journals published by NCFR and many opportunities for participation in the organization, including affiliate councils, sections, focus groups, and committees related to NCFR’s programming and functions. Student participation is welcomed and encouraged at NCFR. We seek out the perspective and needs of members to provide tailor-made professional development webinars, conference sessions, resources, and many other opportunities and experiences. In turn, members who become leaders in NCFR demonstrate skills that help them in other aspects of their careers and lives.


Now It’s Your Turn

I have elaborated several examples of how Family Science competencies can be useful in life both inside and outside of your vocation. Family scholars and Family Life Educators may find some use in these examples when articulating the value and expertise they bring to employers, within their institution, or to colleagues or clients. What other competencies have you discovered? I invite you to elaborate for yourself how these and other skills and abilities are useful to you in whatever walks of life you travel.