Chapter 23: Holistic Practicum Integration and Development of Soft Skills

Simone Doudna

Simone Doudna, Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management, University of Houston


Holistic Practicum Integration is the concept of incorporating both personal and professional development components within the practicum job training program. By integrating these factors, students acquire a well-rounded model for achieving success both academically and in the workplace. This multifaceted model strives to highlight the distinct advantages of incorporating career success predictors such as Emotional Intelligence. In addition, other factors such as developing grit and a growth mindset support the demands of 21st century employability skills.


Many versions of practicum are applied successfully globally. The common thread that binds them is the ultimate goal of developing a robust model of work experience for career success. However, regardless of all the unique aspects of experiential learning or the 1000 hours of work experience required as part of the practicum course requirement at the Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management, one thing remains unwavering: the stipulation for soft skills. Skills such as emotional intelligence, grit and a flexible mindset are tools to be truly successful in one’s career path.

With this in mind, how can we maximize practicum applications so that students are as marketable and as professionally prepared as possible for their future? Which specific skills enhance work experience and also catalyse gainful future employment for our candidates? The answers to these questions revolve around the concept of fostering emotional intelligence, grit and a flexible mindset.

Additional factors impacting student achievements in their career fields are practices in mental wellness, mindfulness, developing a strong personal brand and conquering time management. When these skills are harnessed collectively, the practicum experience delivers students with attractive employability traits, and supports long-term accomplishments in their careers. Too often these soft skills are overlooked, and we observe students struggling with both academic and work performance as a result.

Some of the steps taken along a career path beginswith personal assessments on each student. FOCUS2 and Myers Briggs are two unique resources offered to all students to begin the journey of self-discovery. Incorporating Emotional Intelligence (EI) assessments and developing an action plan to increase EI is recommended, as is the development of each student’s personal brand. Thus, they simultaneously pursue their academic goals while connecting with their career path.

This chapter will explore three factors which have shown to influence student success dramatically with valuable insight into success predictions. These are Emotional Intelligence, grit and a growth mindset.


What is Emotional Intelligence and how do we apply it as a predictor of student success academically and in practicum applications?

Daniel Goleman (1998) describes Emotional Quotient, a synonym for emotional intelligence as “managing feelings so they are expressed appropriately and effectively, enabling people to work together smoothly toward their common goals” (p. 7). Goleman’s pioneering publication on Emotional Intelligence overturned preconceived notions of the power of emotions. Goleman advocated for greater attention to classes in “social development,” “life skills” and “social and emotional learning” (Goleman, 1998). Perhaps the concept of “Self Science” can serve as a backbone for the practicum. His work parallels other research that shows that IQ, natural talents and superior abilities are often not predictors of success (Duckworth, 2007). In his book Working with Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman (1998: 19) cites the Harvard Business School research that determined that “EQ counts for twice as much as IQ and technical skills combined in determining who will be successful”. He points out the article reports that 80% of competencies that differentiate top performers from others are in the domain of Emotional Intelligence.

So we now know (maybe what we have always been thinking) that the most intelligent employees may not necessarily be the top performers. The distinguishing factor remains in each individual’s emotional quotient. This is encouraging for most, since we can cultivate our EI and hence we can influence the outcomes of not just career goals, but personal and health goals as well.

A persuasive argument can be made to relate emotional intelligence with predicting leadership. The study distinguishes candidates with specific traits such as “assertiveness, optimism, independence, flexibility, social responsibility and argues that these characteristics can be predictors of 21st century high potential leadership” (Prepays, 2007). This author illustrates how these skills are highly influential in career success. Therefore, in order for us to guide our students to be the high potential leaders for tomorrow, we should work far beyond simply attaining a quantifiable number of work hours. Our focus should be on cultivating and consolidating intangible soft skills into the experience.

The importance of EI over IQ has become an area of fascinating complexity. With evidence leaning towards EI as a more influential factor in career success, this again is good news for most. IQ is a cognitive measure, whereas EI can be learned, developed and improved. In his book The Millionaire Mind, Stanley (2000: 13)writes “GPA scores were 2.92 on a 4.0 scale for millionaires interviewed and SAT scores were 1190 on average.”

Jennifer Chan also states (2007: 8) “there’s even some evidence of an inverse relationship between high academic achievers and the ability to generate money. If you performed well in school, you excelled at working within an established system. Self-made millionaires who were terrible in school often had to overcome adversity, which led to them becoming tenacious, self-reliant, and willing to take financial risks”. Chan highlights which factors self-made millionaires identified which lead back to EI as the main factors in their success. So can we influence student behaviour to generate wealth, abundance and success without factoring in GPA’s, SAT scores and general IQ levels? According to the research, it is abundantly and encouragingly clear.

Can we predict which of our students are high potential leaders? Is it based on the internship they received? Perhaps it is based on how many work hours they accumulated throughout their tertiary education? On the contrary, research done by Dries and Pepermans (2007) showed soft skill attributes of assertiveness, independence, optimism, flexibility and social responsibility as the attributes that define future leaders. This is consistent with other findings for leadership traits.

“Soft skills are especially relevant as you grow into management roles and lead others in the day-to-day operations and decisions of your company,” wrote Marcine Johnson (as cited in O’Brien & Boyle, 2019: 58), a former dean of the IMA Leadership Academy. More recently, O’Brien and Boyle (2019: 58) note a study published in Management Accounting Quarterly concluded that interpersonal skills-including demonstrating respect, active listening, building trust, relationships, and rapport, demonstrating emotional self-control, and relating to people of diverse backgrounds-were the most important soft skills for career success at all levels.

A final example of a research study by Shutte et al. (2007) showed the relationship between EI and mental health and physical health. Their investigation delves deeper in bridging the relationship between emotional intelligence and one’s own mental and physical health and demonstrates the impact of EI on these important issues.

The second factor that has influenced student success and can be related to overall personal and professional success is Grit.

Grit is defined as “working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity and plateaus in progress” (Duckworth et al., 2007: 1087-1088). Duckworth proposes that the secret to outstanding achievement is actually not talent, but a tenacity and focused persistence called grit. She asks the question ”Why do some people succeed and others fail?” Duckworth argues why talent is hardly a guarantor of success. Rather, she states other factors can be even more crucial such as identifying our passions and following through on our commitments. Tenacity breeds reward. Likewise, similar studies have shown that grittier students handle adversity more successfully (Vandewalle, 2012). Thus, gritty students tend to approach challenges with a marathon perspective versus a short term sprint, ensuring they have the mental stamina to cope with adversity along the way. They focus on the journey instead of just getting to the finish line. Most importantly, and reassuring on all fronts: Both EI and grit can be learned and are mutable.

Finally fostering a Growth Mindset is a predictor of student success.

“Those individuals with fixed mindsets are constrained by their thoughts, which they surrender to believe are carved in stone. It is what it is. In contrast, individuals with a growth mindset believe that they can develop their intelligence over time” (Blackwell, Trzesniewski, & Dweck, 2007; Dweck, 2007).

Students with a growth mindset meet difficult problems with undaunting fervour and handle setbacks much better than those with a fixed mindset of yielding to sentiments of futility and hopelessness. In order to encourage our students to have a growth mindset, we should have a culture of risk taking. Such a culture paves the way for mistakes to be approached as useful tools to rethink and transform facets of our perspective. The concept of “Yet” fosters a growth mindset in which perseverance is the driver for ultimate success, as opposed to innate talent or a high IQ. Too often students abandon their areas of career interest at the first signs of perceived failure. If we channel the power of “Yet” into our thoughts, could our culture not be reimagined into one of career longevity, sustainability, and ultimately higher retention rates?

Carol S. Dweck (2007) has done extensive research on a growth mindset and brain plasticity. She purports that by giving students learning tasks that tell them that they can be as smart as they want to be, we open the doors for students to have a chance to be resilient, and foster a growth mindset which leads not just to short-term achievement but also long-term success.

Reflections and Case Studies

Practicum 1 and 2 (now rebranded as Professional Development and Hospitality Internship respectively) require a cumulative total of at least 1000 work hours, coupled with milestones of digital badges which students earn along their academic path. Having identified the common threads (emotional intelligence, grit and a growth mindset) to promote student success, we will illustrate these factors with three actual case studies. In each of these cases, EI, grit and a flexible mindset are consistently observed as the key factors for achieving both practicum requirements and for students’ future careers. The chapter explores impediments that can impact student retention rates if not effectively addressed. With respect to achieving practicum requirements, these hindrances also prove to be obstacles that tenacious students conquer to fulfil their work experience requirements.

Let us examine examples of how students can overcome adversity derived from hospitality internships and jobs.

Case 1: Not only was Nate forced to surrender his coveted Las Vegas internship after a few weeks, but he also had to repeat the entire practicum course due to personal adversity. He needed a solution to fulfil the practicum requirements and complete his degree.

Case 2: Both Camilla’s sense of smell and taste had been compromised after an accident, which then ultimately threatened her future as a pastry chef. Yet, with so many other positions in hospitality she could have pursued, her passion was to persist in the culinary arts.

Case 3: Due to medical reasons, Maria was limited in her choice of hospitality work experience. She explored many internships that she was otherwise qualified for, and remained steadfast about staying in hospitality, but just needed to find a suitable resolution to cope with her medical circumstances.

What do these three individuals have in common? Although they may have very diverse backgrounds, and ventured on very different career paths, the leitmotif is evident: a dose of adversity compelled them to harness their emotional intelligence, and respond with grit, perseverance and a flexible mindset.

Nate’s story

Nate was a social, eager freshman when he started his hospitality internship. Within a few weeks he noticed something inexplicably wrong after collapsing at work. He returned home to a variety of tests and was ultimately diagnosed with Renal Nutcracker Syndrome (NCS). Nate’s symptoms were quite severe, including blood in the urine, orthostatic proteinuria, flank pain, abdominal pain and chronic fatigue syndrome. With a full course load of 17 hours, he sought to balance his academics while trying to demystify this rare disease that turned his world upside down overnight.

Numbness and circulatory issues left Nate unable to drive to classes on some days. Somehow he persisted. He did his best to simply catch up when it was unrealistic to attend class. And yet, it didn’t always suffice. He simply wasn’t able to meet some of the requirements for Practicum given his circumstances. By refusing a medical withdrawal or exception, Nate’s approach was to fight harder to earn a passing grade the next time, a clear demonstration of a marathon mindset with sustainable mental stamina. This was his raison d’etre. Giving up was not an option.

With his internship coming to an abrupt halt, Nate sought solutions to repeat the course successfully. It was no coincidence that when he reached out to his previous recruiter, he was offered another fighting chance to return the following summer and experience his full hotel operations internship. Why was this desirable spot not allocated to a new and deserving candidate instead? His EI ability to build confidence and trust opened the doors for that offer. His sense of optimism and his commitment to the internship were factors that led the recruiters to the decision for his return in a year. Not only was he able to complete all the professional development workshops when repeating practicum the following year, but he also exceeded the work experience required for practicum despite his disabilities. The concept of grit in maintaining that long term interest over years is evident in his commitment to succeed.

Nate has since graduated, and shortly after graduating, he was offered a position in renewable energy. He was able to navigate the complexities of his emotional and social intelligence to attain his goals in a new organization victoriously. Nate’s career success continued for 5 years at which point he explored a wild childhood dream of acting. After a year of pro bono work, he auditioned in a worldwide casting for a role in an upcoming Amazon miniseries. The outcome? He is now in the early stages of preparing for filming, and consistent with his first internship experience he has the option to return in the future. Nate’s EI traits such as optimism and building confidence have been demonstrated to pay off large rewards.

Nate personifies the tenacious perseverance required to complete practicum and sustainable career goals. For Nate, Mohammed Ali’s mantra of “if my mind can conceive it, and my heart can believe it, then I can achieve it” applies.

Camilla’s story

It seems that each generation is faced with even more adversity and hence grit becomes a necessity for student success. This is especially true in Practicum as grit is a tool that drives accomplishment both in the workplace and an academic setting. In Camilla’s case, she demonstrated a relentless courage in her choice of practicum work hours, a determination recognised in thousands of hospitality students in this degree program.

Camilla was a very driven sophomore, juggling a full course load, full time work as a pastry chef, and a devoted single parent to her four year old daughter. Already Camilla was poised to triumph over obstacles. At first glance, how can students like Camilla commit to these arduous lifestyle demands? Passion and self-motivation are critical traits. Moreover, when we incorporate a full dose of disabilities, time challenges and financial disruptors to this mix, can we still succeed in fulfilling practicum?

In Camilla’s case, it is a resounding yes. During her junior year, Camilla ventured to Austin to attend a music festival. As she strolled along carefree that night, without warning, a vehicle blew by a barricade in the wrong direction and plowed through terrified pedestrians. Tragically, four people lost their lives in a moment that night. Dozens more were injured. Camilla was one of the injured. She suffered traumatic head injuries, a torn carotid artery (which then resulted in a stroke) fractured ribs, two torn ligaments in her knee, and a fractured femur. Side effects of her stroke included homonymous hemianopia (blindness in left peripheral vision of both eyes), and to her utmost despair, loss of senses in both taste and smell. After being in an induced coma for about three days, she remained in the hospital for a month, affecting her finances and academics even more.

Camilla resiliently bounced right back into her academics once she was able to do so. By spring, she had surpassed her personal and academic goals. However, as side effects from her accident, she struggled with a loss of both her sense of taste and smell, coupled with her peripheral vision which was now impaired. Did these disabilities hinder her work goals? On the contrary, she instead gravitated to a resolute culture of risk taking. With her culinary passion as a driving force, she accepted a position in the spring as an Executive Pastry Chef.

Without revealing her disabilities, she harnessed her emotional intelligence, collaborated with team work, listened, learned and responded, and discreetly adapted to her physical disabilities. Teamwork was integral to her success at work. She recognized her limitations with tasting and smelling, and depended on her team to make these vital decisions. When baking her favourite dishes, she would solicit the opinions of her team by constantly asking for advice. Conversations like “Do you think we need more vanilla? Is this too salty? Should we add more lemon zest?” became the hallmark of her success. Trust, mutual respect and the ability to ask for help were the backbone of teamwork when accommodating her disabilities. With a loss of those senses, her awareness of visual cues was enhanced. Of course there were days when visuals weren’t enough. Scorched pastry crème may look great, but smells dreadful! Generally, her ability to detect small changes in consistency and texture led her to safely modify recipes. Her growth mindset was yearning to flourish as a pastry chef. And so she did. Her self-awareness was grounded in a confidence that may seem irrational to those with a fixed mindset.

Her challenges with fulfilling the practicum work requirement were averted through risk taking and having grit. Camilla successfully led the pastry team for five years and is now entwined in her new passion: marriage and family life, with the goal of opening her own business venture in the future.

Maria’s story

Our final case study encompasses traits of EI, grit and a growth mindset. Maria’s medical challenges limited her employment options to a 9-5 job with no travel. Given that hospitality is a 24/7 business, how can you gain the practical experience required with such limitations? Apart from the hands on experience of hospitality operations, how could you acquire leadership skills and develop your EI in work experience as a student with these limitations?

Let’s explore Maria’s circumstances. Born conjoined to her twin sister over 25 years ago, at a time when there was very little information or success rates on these surgeries, Maria led a comfortable life. However, during her junior year, she was diagnosed with malnutrition due to inflammation in her intestines. As a result, Maria was immediately admitted to the hospital where she began IV nutrition. This continued into an 18 month routine of nightly IV nutrition, ranging from 12 hours every night, gradually down to 8 hours a day, four days a week. This was hardly your average college student’s nocturnal activities! It certainly mirrored the marathon perseverance illustrated in grit. She remained steadfast in her belief that she had the ability to juggle both her health issues and her academics while continuing in leadership positions at college.

Inevitably in hospitality, Maria was invited to many socials at the college. As the president of an honours society, she spearheaded event planning for functions, but had no choice but to turn down these events and other invitations as far as Switzerland because of her restrictive new norm. These challenges were met with quiet optimism, a positive attitude and a fervour for even more experience.

In fact, although she had completed Practicum 1 and 2, Maria wanted to gain as much work experience as possible to have the most marketable resume possible. She pursued several exciting hospitality internships but they required travelling to different locations or working flexible shifts. Since her nightly IV routine was an 18 month process, her internship options were limited. Through serendipitous circumstances, Maria interviewed and accepted a position as one of the very first undergrad teaching assistants: for practicum!

Maria was now fully engrossed in the hospitality world through a macro lens, with accelerated learning on internships, placement requirements, and even delving into practicum requirement trends globally. Upon graduating, Maria fully immersed herself in the hospitality industry, working in the audio-visual field.

Although an administrative ( and academic) position was not her first choice, Maria’s experience as a teaching assistant stimulated her EI growth, time management skills, built trust and respect with her peers, fostered active listening, empathy and so many other soft skills that define the leader she is today.


As seen with these cases, practicum success begins with developing soft skills. With mounting research drawing consistent examples, our academic compasses should point towards integrating emotional intelligence or self-science as the foundation of our practicum program. In addition, creating awareness of, and development of grit and growth mindsets have proven to be predictors of long term sustainable career growth across demographics such as age, gender and socioeconomic barriers. As we design future models for Practicum, we acknowledge that the competencies required for long term success extend far beyond the hourly work experience. The true essence of practicum revolves around executing a holistic approach incorporating soft skills and a culture of risk taking.


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Practical Learning in Hospitality Education Copyright © 2021 by Simone Doudna is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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