Resilience and transitioning students to university

This year I want to focus on resilience.

In my day job, I’ve been working with or around transitions to university for 8 or 9 years now. At UPEI, we’ve developed and tried out a number of projects in that time, including program specific transitions courses, a couple of MOOCs (The 2013 Facebook edition is still live) – lots of good work done that we’re proud of. This is my second full year responsible for New Student Orientation and through conversations with students, teachers, faculty, counsellors, lots of staff – even PEI’s Minister of Education – we’ve pretty much come to the conclusion that resilience is the approach we want to take to supporting transitions this year. How can we help students continue to feel like they belong when they face adversity? How do we support and model resilience from day 1?

What resilience isn’t
I am not talking about the kind of resilience that is touted by arch-conservatives as the way people used to be ‘in their day’. I am not suggesting that students have gotten soft, that they need to harden, or that somehow we, as an institution, are responsible for being the crucible through which we mint ourselves some toughened students. That’s hazing and it’s gatekeeping.

I am also not talking about the kind of resilience warned of by Viv Rolfe in which she worries that we encourage resilience instead of making our spaces better places to thrive.

What we mean by resilience
Rolfe suggests “A better way of thinking should be to consider resilience as a process and not a personality trait.” It is this process that we are seeking to model and embody in our orientation this year. The current state of our conversation is that resilience for us involves working on goal setting (both micro and macro), creating a sense of place for students to belong, and having point people available to help students find the help they need.

One the one hand, students need to be able to understand their role, work towards understanding their own goals, finding places and people to work with and learn from. We, as an institution, need to be a place where they can work towards their goals, where a sense of place is available to them and where we encourage others – students, staff and faculty – to be the point person for people to learn from and through which they can find help…even when paths to help are complex or not directly visible.

Student Needs

So this is our first draft at what that looks like as an initial model for what we’re hoping new UPEI students – and the rest of us, maybe – will learn at NSO.

Responsibility as a campus
I think of the goal setting part of this, the ‘purpose,’ as tricky business for a campus. My sense of the strength of higher education is in the diversity of ways students encounter goal setting… and the multiplicity of ways in which success can be viewed. I’d like to encourage people to talk about this to students and to work with them, but would certainly not want to be prescriptive.

As someone who’s been thinking about community in education… obviously a sense of place is something that is important to me. We have the infrastructure in place to provide that sense of place, both on and off campus, but we need to come up with ways to offer people ways of belonging from day 1. We’re working on this. Not everybody wants to belong in the same ways, so again, this can’t be prescriptive and needs to remain in Snowden’s complex domain.

For the ‘point person’ idea to work, we need to be transparent about who can help whom and for what. If we see our student volunteers as the primary point person for new students, we need to be very clear with our them about how they can help students get help. The idea is to scaffold new students into the systems and networks of the institution, not just pass them along the channels of the institutional hierarchy. This will require point people – and the point people’s point people all along the line – to act as identities with connections and individual knowledge, not just within the bounds of their roles. Work to do here… but we have some plans in place.

Responsibility of our student volunteers
I can’t really say enough about the volunteers we have in place for orientation. At last count we have 102 volunteers who have committed their time to helping make the transition to UPEI a valuable experience for everyone. The trick here, I think, is for these students to become comfortable with using the model themselves. They need to understand it, understand their own strengths and weaknesses with it, and refer to it during the whole planning process.

We also need to be clear about what we mean by encouraging them to be ‘point people’. A point person is someone who is just ahead of you, someone who can point you in the right direction if you need help or guidance. That person can share their own experience… but are NOT a professional who should be offering advice in critical points of struggle. We’re going to need to work towards that.

The responsibility of the new student
Obviously a pile of responsibility lies with the student as well. They need to struggle towards understanding their goals. They need to work to belong to spaces that are valuable to them. They need to find key point people and use them effectively. BUT… and this is a big but, they can’t be expected to know that before they come. I do not believe that students are under any cultural imperative to understand what they need to do before they come. It’s our job to work with them to help them get there.

We’re hoping that we can grow this model into something that can help us grow towards a campus that supports resilient students. Would love your feedback on our first draft.

A look at the UPEI Academic Plan

A little over a year ago, I was asked to leave the work I was doing with the Recruitment and First Year advisement team (partially rolling out a CRM) and go help with student engagement/retention and getting our university’s first academic plan written. A committee of 22 administrators, faculty, staff and students was assembled to craft the next four years of the academic – and to some degree research – direction of UPEI. We spent a year working on it, starting first with our campus Strategic Plan and then through various feedback approaches. We crafted the 28 page Academic Plan that was endorsed by the Board of Governors after having been approved by our Senate. The content of the plan came out of the vision of our Strat Plan and the needs and ideas of campus, but my role was to direct structure and build consensus. I had to develop an iterative vision and process around core questions: What does a good Academic Plan look like? What should it do? What does ours need to do?

What is an Academic Plan anyway?
The term means lots of different things to different people. For some, it is a Strat plan for an entire campus. For some, it is the direction that they will take with regards to programming. For UPEI, the Academic Plan is:

  1. Our method of enacting the UPEI Strategic Plan on the academic/research end of the house.
  2. An attempt to give us some of the tools that we need to be more effective in getting good ideas up and running
  3. A way to respond to academic/research related possibilities/challenges on campus

Data Gathering/Research method
We did web based surveys, world cafe style sessions, and had an open door policy for people who wanted to come in and share ideas/concerns. We used a provisional coding strategy with an initial set of codes from the UPEI Strat plan. We then went through individual and program based feedback and adjusted the code as we went along. Those codes eventually morphed into the 35 initiatives that appear in the final draft of the Academic Plan. We very much took an iterative approach, returning to the committee with the results, the adaptation in the code, and the ways in which those codes translated to initiatives. Lots of good discussion.

What is an initiative?
I spent a fair amount of time wringing my hands over this one. We wanted each initiative to have a goal and objectives, to be assigned to people… to be clear. We also wanted to create a scenario where our subject matter experts would have the latitude to innovate in the ways in which they responded to the challenges. If we waited for that innovation to happen before we wrote the document, we’d be finishing the projects before they’d even been approved. We decided on a middle ground that reflected the codes and responses from campus as best we could, but still allowed the groups that would be running those initiatives the chance to do new and interesting things without being committed to our initial thoughts on the matter. Here’s a nice clean example – Initiative 29 – Student Employment on Campus

Goal: Use our employment of students as a training ground for job search skills
Description: Each year, over 500 students work on the UPEI campus supporting the mission of the University. This provides an ideal opportunity to create supports to help shape their future career skills. This project will provide supports to student applicants before, during, and after their work time here at UPEI.
Responsibility: Office of Skills Development and Learning
Success measures: Baseline of student applicants and successful applicants; new communications procedures and follow-up (including mentorship); number of students supported by providing job hunting, résumé building, and interview skills

Project management on an initiative
Having the initiatives detailed in a document is one thing, figuring out how we’re going to go about getting them done is something else. We have a campus full of smart people who are already working on projects. The challenge for us from a project management perspective was to find an approach that would allow 35 initiatives to all get planned out and completed but still allow people to have a window into the process.

initiative charter
The first step for an initiative is to create a charter. A charter basically sets the high level milestones, sets broad timelines for those milestones, assigns the tasks to specific individuals, has a discussion of scope (in and out), and has a common sense section where we can talk about what success looks like. Think of it as an internal contract with ourselves, where we promise what we’re going to do and commit to actually getting it done. The initiative charters are shared google docs that have a rich history of discussion attached to them. These charters will go to Senate for approval and then will get posted on the academic planning website. We have 7 charters going to Senate this month. Fingers crossed.

project plan
This document gets down to the details. I’ve created a streamlined project management approach that has a google sheet for each project stitched together to a central dashboard giving us a sense of the health of all the the initiatives that we are running. Google lacks some of the fancy features of the pro-style project management software, but everyone can use it, assigning view/comment/edit rights is super easy inside our organization and ‘importrange’ is easy for my caveman mind to use to build a dashboard.

The project plan has what you’d expect. A place for general status of the project. A place to talk about what the challenges might be and what possible resolutions could look like. A breakdown of each milestone into tasks, delivered outcomes, due dates etc… Its one spreadsheet that will get used by all project members and where key details get centralized for efficient obstacle removal. I’m trying to make this an email-less project if possible.

What I hope the Academic Plan will mean
There are a number of individual initiatives and specific outcomes in the plan that I care a great deal about. Higher ed is in a very interesting place right now. Our ability to understand things like networked participatory scholarship, the impact of the new focus on ‘career skills’ and the need for good mentorship doesn’t actually need to conflict with maintaining the things that make a university a university (autonomy, academic freedom, research etc…). We can have both of these things, I think. We just need to find effective ways to work on the things that we care about – to get the job done while still being who we are. If we managed to do anything in this project… that’s what I hope we did.