“It is hoped that in Africa, as in the U.S., the process will speed the move from poverty and unemployment to steady jobs.” —Liz Peterson

May and early June 2001 found alumna Elizabeth C. “Liz” Peterson teaching “dependable strengths articulation” skills (DSA) in Johannesburg, South Africa. No, she wasn’t conducting workshops for physical therapists eager to accumulate continuing education units. Rather, she and her five-member team were teaching individuals to identify and help each other explore the things they feel they have done well, are proud of, and also enjoy doing.

Their reasons for doing so go to the heart of South Africa’s recent history of apartheid and its legacy—as well as the country’s postapartheid transformation.

According to Peterson, 24 percent of South Africans have had their skills and talents buried by the educational limitations of apartheid. “It is hoped that in Africa, as in the U.S., the process will speed the move from poverty and unemployment to steady jobs,” Peterson says.

“Tracing these experiences to early childhood and identifying the skills they used, the participants clarify their own dependable strengths,” says Peterson (’94 Psych, ’98 M.A. Comm.). “These strengths point to overlooked capabilities and talents that may need developing, perhaps through practice, education, or career changes.”

Peterson is director of career services at the Daniel J. Evans School of Public Affairs at the University of Washington. She provides career development seminars, resumé reviews, and career counseling to the school’s 200-plus students. Before joining the Evans School in 1999, she was assistant director of admissions at Central Washington University. Earlier still, she was development coordinator at WSU’s College of Agriculture and Home Economics, responsible for alumni relations, the annual giving program, and campaign gifts.

She explains that eight South Africans, four black and four white, went to Seattle in 1999 to study the DSA process and now apply it in their native country.

In Africa Peterson and her team trained 33 South Africans, both white and black, to become instructors and help others recognize their potential. They worked nearly seven days a week with potential DSA trainers who will bring their skills to homeless services, employment services, and the K-12 school system. Additionally, they trained six of the original eight instructors to be trainers. This will enable the newly established Dependable Strengths Foundation in South Africa to be self-sufficient.

The team ran two training sessions. The first five days focused on training instructors, followed by weekends devoted to supervising new instructors at practicum sites, including those in Diepkloff, an all-black township in Soweto outside Johannesburg.

After completing the self-assessment segment of the workshop, participants were ready for their field work. They had to approach people in local businesses and have them read the “strengths reports” they had prepared. The objective was to get contacts for a job search.

Peterson recalls that Kaghiso, a student two years out of high school, was offered an assistant manager post at a business called Photo First. Among the strengths he had listed were communication and marketing, skills he had honed in college-level courses he had taken.

“His face just lit up when he came back to report what had happened,” Peterson says. “He was ecstatic.”

Later she met Kaghiso’s father. He thanked her for helping his son. “He is a changed man,” the father said of Kaghiso.

The DSA process “really changes the way you think about your strengths and other people’s strengths,” she says.

DSA dates back to 1926, when Bernard Haldane, age 15, conceived the idea that people need help if they are to work productively in fulfilling jobs. His subsequent studies of labor relations and psychological testing at New York University and Columbia University were followed by research into how people get hired.

Haldane’s research revealed the benefits to productivity of identifying the skills-energy flow people associate with getting things done. His experientially developed method involved people in telling stories about their most effective and fulfilling experiences, helping them perceive a pattern of skills in them, and seeking interviews for positions likely to apply and grow those pattern-skills.

Haldane put his beliefs into practice by assisting U.S. military officers with job placements after they returned from World War II. He looked at how their skills were transferable to civilian life. Today Microsoft, Exxon, Boeing, the State of Idaho education system, and the Washington state corrections system, among others, are DSA advocates, according to Peterson. Haldane is still active in training dependable strengths instructors and presenting his work at career development conferences.

Peterson calls her month in Africa “a life-changing experience… both spiritually and emotionally rewarding.”

“Helping people understand and see that they have strengths, skills, and talents that they never knew they had is a wonderful feeling,” she adds.