By Brianne Sanchez | Community relations manager, Des Moines University
Committee member, Iowa Campus Compact "Giving Voice to Values"
Pilates looks easy. Lie on a mat and lift your legs? OK, then. I'll be over on the treadmill, working up a sweat and catching up on TV.

But anyone who's ever been to a workout class knows what those tightly controlled movements can do to stabilize and strengthen your core muscles. And, as a health professional will tell you, a strong core -- including your abdominal muscles, back muscles and the muscles around the pelvis -- makes you better at a wide variety of sports and exercise. There's a professional development analogy here, along with the visions of Jillian Michaels I've conjured up for you.

Just as your body needs exercises that tone and strengthen your core, your professional development plan benefits from activities that improve your core skills -- communication, cultural competence, empathy, critical thinking and problem-solving, teamwork. Some might refer to these as "soft" skills, but using that term to describe essential attributes of a professional is as off-base as dismissing Pilates because it "looks easy." Anyone who has tackled a group project knows these core functions are critical for success.

In college, meaningful training in "core skills" can take the form of internships, student club leadership or courses that engage in service-learning. The service-learning model can also be intentionally adapted for developing as a civic-minded professional throughout your career, by seeking out meaningful volunteerism and board service opportunities. Just serving isn't enough, though. There are three questions professional should ask to turn community engagement into a learning experience. Build reflection into your experience, the same as you end each workout with a cool-down and meditation.

Ask yourself:

WHAT? What activities did you perform as a function of your service? Break those functions down into core skills. Maybe you assisted with the procurement of auction items. How did making those requests challenge and develop your communication skills? Perhaps your organization underwent strategic planning, calling on your critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Or, your department served meals at the shelter and you were inspired to work on your empathy or cultural competency skills. What did you see or hear from the people you served or worked alongside? What larger social issues are at play that create a need for this service?

SO WHAT? How did this work challenge you as a professional? What did you do that seemed to be effective or ineffective in the community? How does your understanding of the community change because of your participation in this project?

NOW WHAT? What seem to be the root causes of the issue addressed? What other work is currently happening to address the issue? What would you like to learn more about, related to this project or issue? What follow-up is needed to address any challenges or difficulties?
As with any new workout, continuous development evolves into a matter of practice. Living these questions will inspire you to grow in your service and develop -- deeply and intentionally -- core skills you can use to make yourself a stronger professional and the community a better place.

Learn more about what colleges and universities are doing in Iowa to develop students into civic-minded professionals:

Brianne Sanchez is community relations manager at Des Moines University, a freelance writer, a wife and a mother. She served as founding co-chair of YNPN Des Moines until June 2015 and on past planning teams for TEDxDes Moines and TEDxDesMoinesWoman. She is a Drake University Master of Public Administration alumna and maintains a personal blog at