After five years working on the Transformational Change Initiative, principal investigator Laura Hill has a tough time coming up with any shortcomings of the grant-funded project.

The initative received funding from 2016’s strategic reallocation to come up with new ways to help improve student retention.

It is already boosting student success and achievement in a variety of ways.

“Our goal was to have multiple touchpoints, using evidence-based programs that we know help students,” said Laura Hill, senior vice provost and co-principal investigator for the Transformational Change Initiative. “It really came together and even stimulated other efforts at WSU. We achieved all of our goals with each major arm of the program.”

The TCI project includes three main components: a parent-student handbook, LAUNCH – a peer-facilitated program designed to connect students to co-curricular learning opportunities, and LIFT (Learn. Inspire. Foster. Transform.) – a faculty development program that focuses on the student’s experience in the classroom.

Both LAUNCH and LIFT boosted student retention among participating cohorts.

Additionally, parents/guardians who discussed alcohol and drug awareness information in the new handbook with their college-age children reported a decrease in their child’s alcohol use and cannabis use through their first four semesters at WSU.

Lending a handbook

Hill led a team of WSU faculty and staff from the Office of the Dean of Students and Student Affairs in designing “First Years Away from Home: Letting Go and Staying Connected.” The effort was a collaboration with partners at the University of Washington.

The handbook helps parents of first-year students learn ways to support their students’ autonomy while communicating clear expectations and providing emotional support.

The goal of the program was to decrease risk behaviors, measured through alcohol and cannabis use and it succeeded, both statistically and qualitatively.

“The handbook received rave reviews from parents,” Hill said. “The students whose parents got the handbook were less likely to participate in those risk behaviors. The handbook helped the parents prepare for the transition and what their student would be experiencing when they went to college.”

Hill said the next step is to update the handbook and run another trial with parents and students at Colorado State University. The National Institute of Health is providing grant funding and Hill is hopeful that the program will eventually expand to wider audiences at WSU and across the country.

Preparing for LAUNCH

The myriad opportunities for involvement at WSU can be overwhelming for first-year students, but research shows that co-curricular learning experiences are often key to success in college and beyond. The LAUNCH ambassadors serve as a sort of concierge service, guiding students to opportunities that match their interests.

“The intention is to help the students connect with opportunities that align with their values, play to their strengths, and move them toward their goals,” said Sam Swindell, co-principal investigator for TCI. “We recruited a group of ambassadors and they really deliver the program.”

The LAUNCH students opt in to the program, which has been embedded in Psychology 105, Human Development 200, and Math 140. They complete an initial Goals, Personal Values, Strengths (GPS) inventory, and then participate in a workshop with the LAUNCH ambassadors that helps them lay out a plan to reach their goals as an undergraduate, and beyond.

“The experiential and co-curricular opportunities are not just preparing them for jobs, but increasing their breadth of knowledge and helping them to develop a flexible skillset,” Swindell said. “We’re trying to get students engaged as soon as possible. Starting early not only gives them more time to develop their skills and knowledge – and build important relationships – but each opportunity may lead to more opportunities and students are likely be better able to step into those new opportunities because of the experience they have already acquired.”

Faculty providing a LIFT

When it comes to teaching, there are many options for training and improvement, but the LIFT (Learn. Inspire. Foster. Transform) Faculty Fellowship sets a high standard. Bill Davis, associate dean for undergraduate education in the College of Veterinary Medicine and Co-PI for the Initiative, says the programming came along at the right time and positively impacted both faculty and students.

“Instead of talking about active learning and pedagogy, we focused on the student experience,” Davis said. “At the time LIFT started it was fairly unique. The trainers and facilitators worked hard to build a program that is robust, effective, and has a high impact. The testimonials tell us people are walking away with a new vision of the learning environments they can build for their students.”

The fourth cohort of LIFT fellows will begin training this month. Their instruction focuses on mindfulness, self-compassion, and how to foster a growth mindset. Additionally, the fellows learn how to increase their students’ sense of belonging and teach values-based decision making.

Nearly 10,000 students were exposed to at least one LIFT-taught course in the first two years of the program and those students were retained at rates 6% higher than their peers in the first year. The trend in higher student retention rate continued and increased in years 2 and 3.

Faculty are also enthused about the program and the practical tools it provides for instruction and beyond.

“We’ve had faculty tell us they’re so glad that WSU has invested in this, and we’ve found that a lot of Fellows talk about how they’ve used the training for situations outside of work with a family member or a partner,” said Katie Forsythe, director of TCI. “The LIFT Fellows also appreciate the systemwide aspect of the program. We’ve had instructors from Everett, Global Campus, Tri-Cities, Vancouver, Pullman, and this spring we’ll have some from Spokane.”

The LIFT program is reliant on a dedicated group of faculty who serve as trainers and dedicate many hours to leading instructors through the curriculum.

“Our trainers have been really committed year after year and we haven’t had any drop off,” Davis said. “Most of them have been through the program, and then become trainers. They want to continue to be involved because they believe in it and want to see it grow.”

Plans are currently in the works to continue both the LAUNCH and LIFT programs through the Office of the Provost, according to Hill.

“I think the next step is to expand and really create a change that emphasizes a commitment to student success, and student-centered education,” she said.