Winthrop Adkins, Pioneering Life Skills Educator, Dies at 82 | Teachers College Columbia University

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Winthrop Adkins, Pioneering Life Skills Educator, Dies at 82

Winthrop Adkins (Ph.D.’63, M.A.’59), Professor Emeritus of Psychology & Education, who created a career development program used by millions of people around the world, passed away in early July. He was 82.

In the late 1970s, with the United States mired in recession and high unemployment, Adkins drew on the theories of John Dewey, Donald Super and others to develop the Adkins Life Skills/Career Development Program. His premise: unemployed and undereducated people need to develop effective psychosocial competencies as much as they need to hone their academic and vocational skills. Through small-group dynamics and carefully designed multimedia learning activities, the Adkins program helps people learn about themselves and the world of work; set personal goals; choose, prepare for, identify and get and keep jobs; and develop long-term careers.

“This has been the missing leg of the stool,” he said in 2009. “Society has dealt with unemployed adults and high school dropouts by teaching academic and occupational skills. But the third leg, psychosocial skills weren’t being treated as an area of learning. In order for members of our target group to find employment, they often have to deal with emotional issues and change the way they think, feel and act about themselves and their opportunities.”

The Adkins Life Skills/Career Development Program has been implemented by nearly 2,000 agencies in more than 40 states, including prisons, homeless shelters, drug rehabilitation centers, welfare-to-work programs, economic-opportunity centers and community colleges. The series also has been adapted abroad for use in settings ranging from European Union nations to community colleges in India.  

Several statistical studies of the Adkins program’s effectiveness showed some improvement in jobs retention. A New York City Department of General Services 10-month follow-up showed 38 percent of Adkins graduates gainfully employed, compared with 1 percent in a similar comparison group.

Adkins was born in Syrian-controlled Beirut, the son of Christian Congregationalist missionaries. He developed an early interest in work and careers as a result of holding more than 20 different low-skills jobs while supporting himself through high school and college. A graduate of Princeton University, he spent three years as an officer in the U.S. Navy and then earned his doctorate in Counseling Psychology  at Columbia, where he studied with Super, one of the pioneers in research on the psychology of careers.

Working with Paul Sharar and Sidney Rosenberg, Adkins later designed and founded the YMCA-sponsored Training Resources for Youth (TRY) Project in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. He taught at York College of the City University of New York and then came to TC, where he taught for 30 years. While there, he and his staff developed the Career Development Series, published by the Psychological Corporation, a division of Harcourt Brace Janovich, and created the Institute for Life Coping Skills, which Adkins and his wife continued to operate from Stamford, Connecticut after his retirement from TC.

Published Friday, Oct. 9, 2015

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