University Park, IL,
09:04 AM

All-Campus Symposium Plays to Strengths

Shifting from what’s wrong to what’s right—discovering a student’s strengths instead of calling out their weaknesses — is the best way to engage and retain them.

That was the essence of an all-campus symposium where nearly 160 GSU faculty, staff, and students gathered on Friday, February 23, to explore driving engagement on campus through an anti-deficit model of education.

“If you get students to year three, they usually graduate,’’ Gallup Education Lead Strategist Tom Matson told the group. “We have to find their strengths in years one and two.’’ Gallup Education administers the Clifton StrengthsFinder survey for leadership development.

The GSU symposium occurs twice a year around topics that touch the entire campus and have included inclusion, citizenship, and writing across the campus in the past. “These forums are key to transformation,’’ said President Elaine P. Maimon.

This semester’s symposium focused on engaging faculty, staff, and students with a lens filtering for personal strengths instead of inherent weaknesses—building on what they do well instead their deficits. “Research shows the strength-based model of education works,’’ Dr. Maimon told the group gathered at round tables on the stage of the Center for Performing Arts.

To prepare for the daylong event, participants took the 120+ question StrengthsFinder survey to identify and rank their five dominant leadership themes from a pool of 34 traits that ranged from Strategic and Focus, to Harmony and Relator.

During the symposium, attendees took part in individual and group exercises and shared stories of triumph and breakthroughs as a result of discovering their strong suits. Identifying natural gifts and talents inspired deeper engagement with colleagues and peers, they said.

Seated at white covered tables, symposium participants proudly displayed their “top five” lists at their seats and referenced the themes as members of an administrative-student panel spoke.

Panelists often used their newfound themes to introduce themselves.

“I’m Dartina, and I’m a Developer,’’ said Dartina Dunlap, a GSU Career Services Counselor whose top five natural strengths include the gift to develop the potential of those around her.

Along with a knack to develop talent, Dunlap is a natural connector and strategist who is positive and loves input (information)—all traits she employs when working with students who sometimes struggle.

When one formerly withdrawn student learned she has the gift of “WOO”—winning others over —she began planning events and enlisting others in execution. “She just blossomed,’’ said Dunlap.

Dunlap and Darcie Campos, Assistant Vice President of Student Affairs and Director of Career Services, completed the Strengths facilitator training in 2014. Since then, they have led sessions for students and staff to help the campus become more thriving and engaging.

The model has helped improve communication and sharpen leadership skills in staff and students alike, from graduate assistants working with students to incoming freshman taking classes in Mastering College.

Campos’ team is stronger, too.

“The success of the team soars when we know the strengths of the players,’’ she said. “The misconception is that we all have to be well rounded in everything,’’ she continued. “But working collaboratively as a team allows us to build the complementary partnerships necessary to take our work from good to great. As individuals, we’re never going to be perfect, but as a team working in tandem, we can definitely go further.”

Engaged students, faculty, and staff move campuses forward. That’s the “why’’; the “how” is shifting from weakness to strengths discovery, Matson said.

“If we want to change students on campus, we have to starting caring,’’ Matson said. “Start by putting away your cell phone when you walk past a student. Be present.’’

Matson said his own learning disability in grade school robbed him of confidence and he was languishing at the back of the classroom until a teacher inspired him when she took an interest in his writing. “People remember how you make them feel,’’ said Matson, today an accomplished author and presenter.

GSU Junior Isaiah Moore eloquently summed up the direct correlation between faculty and staff who care and students who succeed. “Care establishes relationship, and relationship establishes structure, and structure eradicates chaos and produces an environment for students to thrive in.”

From StrengthsFinder’s pool of themes that range from Achiever to WOO, people often share themes —though rarely in the same ranking order. Still, consistency was the common refrain among early symposium reviewers.

Participants said they were more self-aware and inspired as a result of the presentation.

Randi Schneider, Associate Vice President for Enrollment Management, put her communication strength to work right away by artfully comparing the group to a mosaic. ‘’This is an amazing picture that our puzzle pieces create to achieve the goal of successful students.’’

“This was an awesome day,’’ said Interim Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Beth Cada, a “Maximizer” who also is strong in Individualization with a natural ability to focus on others’ strengths to stimulate personal and group excellence and collaboration. “It’s been really good to get to know our colleagues in different ways.”

One of President Maimon’s top five strengths is “Learner”—one who has a great desire to learn and continuously improve. The symposium reinforced a lesson she mastered some time ago: “No matter what your role is here, you are teaching students. Please help them find their strengths and develop them. And, focus on your own strengths and the strengths of this institution. The work we do together is strong.”