Alejandra Nevarez was a freshman in high school the first time she stepped into a classroom in the United States.
Her family had moved from El Paso to Juárez when she was just two months old. That meant Alejandra began high school knowing very little English. She worried that she would not meet the expectations of her teachers, family and even herself. She felt under-qualified, ill-prepared and lacking potential.
But, she persevered. And when she enrolled at The University of Texas at El Paso in fall 2017, she was surprised to discover that what she perceived to be her shortcomings might actually be assets in preparing her for lifelong success. She gained this insight through the UTEP Edge – the University’s student success culture that seeks to identify and build on the strengths that students bring with them to the campus, and propel them toward successful degree completion and personal and professional success after graduation.
The UTEP Edge officially launched during Miner Welcome Week in fall 2017, the same semester Alejandra arrived on campus. Since its implementation, the Edge has sought to enhance the overall student experience at UTEP and, specifically, to continue developing and integrating the University’s high-impact practices, with a goal of preparing students for leadership and success, both on campus and beyond.
A Culture Change at UTEP
The UTEP Edge culture evolved from the successful execution of the University’s access and excellence mission. It was first conceived in 2016 by a large team of UTEP faculty, staff and students who were responsible for developing a Quality Enhancement Plan, or QEP, as part of the University’s accreditation review process. Through research and a series of focus groups and conversations with a broad range of UTEP stakeholders, the team identified increased student engagement in high-impact practices as a potentially powerful factor in enhancing their success at UTEP and in their careers and lives after graduation.
“UTEP’s QEP recognizes that our students’ often limited financial means are complemented by huge assets – talent, motivation, and life experiences – which will enable them to succeed on our campus, in the world of work, and in the global community,” said UTEP President Diana Natalicio. “The UTEP Edge approach begins with these special strengths and attributes that our students bring to the campus, and builds on them through a range of experiences designed to foster their development and ensure that, upon graduation, they are fully prepared with the competence and confidence that they will need to compete successfully with their peers anywhere.”
Research on student success (e.g., Kuh and Pascarella) has revealed that students who engage in two or more high-impact practices while in college have better retention rates, graduate faster, are more connected, and have a greater sense of belonging to a university. For first-generation and Latino college students, the benefits of high-impact practices appear to be even greater.
The 10 high-impact practices that currently comprise the UTEP Edge experiences are: research and scholarly activity, student employment, community engagement, capstone experiences, creative activities, learning communities, internships, student leadership, study abroad/study away and first-year experiences.
Well before the Edge got its name, Louie Rodriguez, associate vice president for student affairs, played a key role in its development. He served as the Edge’s Student Affairs liaison and initially helped conduct focus groups, a series of conversations with students to determine whether such an approach made sense as UTEP’s focus over the next 10 years. According to Rodriguez, it became clear early on that the UTEP Edge had become more than merely a strategic student success plan.
“The UTEP Edge has become a culture change,” Rodriguez said. “We wanted to set the expectation that a UTEP education equals engagement and meaningful high-impact experiences that are reflective of student needs. If you are choosing to come to the University, you’re going to do more than just go to class; you’re going to be engaged and use your limited time in meaningful ways to get you prepared for your future.”
An Asset-Based Approach
One of the earliest accomplishments of the UTEP Edge was the development of an asset-based approach to serve as the core of the Edge philosophy. The basic premise is that students enter UTEP with many talents, great strengths and big dreams, and the UTEP Edge further develops these assets through high-impact, enriching experiences.
“The asset-based approach transformed the entire mission of the UTEP Edge,” said David Ruiter, associate provost and co-writer of UTEP’s QEP. “This approach is about honoring everybody with their talents and experiences and letting them know that what they bring to the table – language skills and bilingualism; work experience; academic, athletic, and artistic backgrounds; military service; etc. – is valuable and valued here at UTEP.”
UTEP senior Brianna Brogdon-Gilbert possessed extensive skills when she arrived at UTEP as a freshman. In high school, she had served as an officer for her school’s honor society and a JROTC brigade commander for the El Paso Independent School District, and she played a leadership role in various other student organizations.
“I felt like I had good communication skills and leadership skills through my high school experiences when I came to UTEP, but I wasn’t sure how to apply those to a college setting,” Brogdon-Gilbert recalled. “I think that the UTEP Edge activities and experiences challenge students to build off the skills they come in with and help them discover who they are and what they are comfortable with to find their passion and further develop their skills.”
New Student Orientation (NSO) for incoming students received a makeover to accommodate the asset-based approach and encourage new students to think about the skills and assets they bring with them to the University.
At NSO, a team of UTEP students talks about the skills they brought to UTEP and how they developed and added to them through their Edge experiences. New students are then offered the opportunity to reflect on their own key assets and identify their core values.
A UTEP psychology major, Alejandra had not worked professionally before attending college, but what she gained through her life experiences was significant. Her parents did not speak English, so she would often serve as a translator for them. She was also able to learn very quickly not only how to function academically, but to thrive in a new country. Through the Edge, she began to understand that she brought with her to UTEP such assets as bilingualism, adaptability and responsibility.
“I never thought about things like being bilingual as a skill; it was no big deal,” recalled Alejandra, who was first introduced to the UTEP Edge at NSO the summer before her freshman year. “The UTEP Edge helped me recognize my skills and highlighted them. I remember feeling proud of myself and accomplished for already bringing something to the table.”
In addition to NSO, UTEP offers to students, faculty and staff a broad range of other resources such as activities and workshops focused on the identification and exploration of participants’ key assets and core values.
“Based on the stories shared at NSO, I think we are getting students to start to reflect on who they are, what they care about, and what their strengths are,” said Erika Mein, co-chair of the Department of Teacher Education and the faculty lead in promoting the Edge from an asset-based approach. “UTEP is on the cutting edge in implementing high-impact practices with an asset-based approach to student success. The University is poised to become a model for other high schools, community colleges and universities that serve diverse populations.”
NSO was not the only student first-year experience to receive a UTEP Edge makeover. University 1301 Seminar in Critical Inquiry also underwent some changes. This core curriculum course is designed to engage first-year students intellectually in an academic theme through which they will further develop their knowledge and skills, as well as their engagement with the UTEP community.
The expectation is that all University 1301 courses will serve as an introduction to engagement. Consistent with the UTEP Edge, building communication skills – both written and oral – is also playing a more significant role in 1301 courses, with additional plans in the works.
“What we hope to introduce in fall 2018 is a sort of embedded student engagement plan for all students enrolled in University 1301 courses, so they know how to sign up for student organizations, community service, know where the Study Abroad office is, and so on,” Rodriguez said.
Spreading the Word
When Carol Parker, provost and vice president for academic affairs, arrived at UTEP in fall 2017, she set as one of her main goals to help communicate the UTEP Edge philosophy more broadly across the campus. According to Provost Parker, many UTEP faculty members were already engaging in the Edge’s high-impact experiences in their classrooms and labs, but they were not always making the connection between their work and the goals of the Edge.
“Faculty have the most opportunity to make the greatest difference in our students’ achievements,” Provost Parker said. “For students, the highest-impact practice is a positive, professional relationship with faculty.”
Another major accomplishment of the UTEP Edge has been the development of a new holistic, cohort-based advising model. Previously, advising had generally been structured to assist students collectively rather than individually. Personalization of the college experience for each student is consistent with the UTEP Edge philosophy.
“Advisers are now trained to assist students in developing their own academic and co-curricular plans based on each student’s interests, aspirations and commitments,” said Heather Smith, associate vice president for academic affairs.
Every student is assigned an adviser in the Academic Advising Center who assists them in developing individualized academic, financial and engagement plans that converge to forge a clear pathway to successful degree completion.
“The holistic model is designed to help our students identify and capitalize on their assets in order to create solid foundations during their first three semesters,” Smith said. “By elevating advising to deliberate and meaningful interaction with every student, we can assist students in finding the right balance to stay, to finish and to succeed.”
Training the Trainers
Since the implementation of the Edge, a greater emphasis has been placed on the professional development of faculty and staff who play a major role in student success.
Working groups from divisions and departments throughout campus came together to develop an Edge-driven professional development initiative in which all UTEP employees were encouraged to participate.
“As faculty and staff, we all have the opportunity to impact students’ lives and have a responsibility to empower them, show them by example, and mentor them in their future job goals,” said Florina Barnett, a director in the Office of Human Resources. “To do all these things requires professional development.”
An extensive catalog of trainings was created that focus on Edge-related content, including such soft skills as communication, team building, emotional intelligence and leadership essentials.
The Center for Faculty Leadership and Development (CFLD), led by Marc Cox, associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, was established in spring 2017 to further the professional development of faculty and staff across campus. The center has four major focal areas: teaching and learning, scholarship and mentoring, entrepreneurship and innovation, and leadership. The CFLD provides a wide range of programming in these areas for faculty and staff.
“The more successful our faculty and staff are, the more opportunities are available for students,” Cox said. “We are obligated as faculty to continuously improve for the benefit of our students.”
The UTEP Edge has not only fostered successes on campus but in the community as well. Ivette Savina, assistant vice president for outreach and student access at UTEP, has spent the past year focusing on moving the UTEP Edge philosophy into area schools. The goal is to provide a base of support for new generations of students who will enter the University already familiar with the UTEP Edge and the opportunities that it presents for them.
Using the asset-based approach, Savina’s team visits area schools and provides students in grades K-12 with presentations and activities that identify and elevate their assets through the various Edge experiences. They explain how participation in these experiences leads to lifelong success upon graduating from the University.
The UTEP Edge-ucation Exchange was piloted in 2017-18 to facilitate the exchange of inter-institutional best practices. UTEP faculty are encouraged to share their areas of expertise with high school teachers in the community, and those teachers share their best practices with UTEP faculty. The result is a stronger bridge between UTEP and the surrounding community and further support for student success. The goal is to increase the number of schools and faculty joining in the exchange in the future.
“The message that we convey to the community motivates students to pursue higher education, enroll at UTEP, and pursue graduate school or start a career,” Savina said. “I think students at all grade levels intuitively understand the UTEP Edge. When we tell them that we are trying to help them identify and develop their competitive edge, they start to self-reflect, and through that reflection, they make the connection. The Edge philosophy is not something foreign; it becomes exciting for them.”
More Work Ahead
With the first phase of the UTEP Edge implementation nearly completed, much remains to be done.
The second phase will introduce assessment, tracking and metrics. A database created by Ann Gates, professor and chair of the Department of Computer Science, will be used to track engagement activities in which students are participating as a result of the UTEP Edge. After the benchmark year, retention and graduation rates and grade point averages will begin to be assessed and measured.
Phase 2 is also expected to see deeper embedding of the Edge philosophy and additional workshops and trainings for faculty, staff and students. Feedback from faculty will be sought on the impact of implementing the Edge in their classrooms, additional new resources will be introduced, together with trainings on how they can be utilized.
“It is exciting to see the initial response of students to the UTEP Edge,” President Natalicio said. “They are becoming more energized and confident in their abilities to achieve their goals. The good work of the UTEP Edge team will continue, systematically developing, enhancing, and building on successful activities already in place to further extend UTEP’s tradition of access and excellence and our deep commitment to student success.”
The first phase of the Edge offered many insights. Most importantly, it is having an impact on students like Alejandra who had not recognized the talents and skills she had developed before setting foot on the UTEP campus, and her opportunity to build on them at UTEP.
“I appreciate the work that has been done in putting all these experiences together and giving it a name – the UTEP Edge,” Alejandra said. “This is very helpful, especially for students like me who are first-generation college students and have no clue what to do with their lives or how college works, much less what they have to offer. The UTEP Edge gives clear direction for students to get engaged on campus and in the community and shows us how our skills are meaningful and useful. In my first year of college, I have already done so much, and I already feel I have an advantage in anything I choose to do in the future.”