University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Vice Provost for Student Success Amber Williams delivered a keynote address at the 2022 Gallup At Work Summit in early June, highlighting UT’s innovative student support initiatives. More than 5,000 professionals attended the virtual conference, which included presentations from executives at Southwest Airlines and Paramount Pictures.
In her presentation, Williams described building a campus where students receive the resources and community support they need to succeed, and how these strategies are paying off at UT with record graduation and retention rates.
Over the last two years, as the national retention rate has dropped by almost 2 percentage points, UT’s rate has gone up. This spring, 96 percent of first-year students returned for their spring semester—the highest rate in recent years.
Nationwide, about four in every 10 students fail to graduate in six years—often because they don’t see a campus community that reflects them, they endure financial barriers or personal hardships, or they begin to see others succeeding without a degree and question whether they need one, Williams said.
“On top of all these challenges, they are met with a higher education system that doesn’t understand them and was never built to include them,” she said. “But what if we could change that? What if we created a campus where we believed in every student’s potential?”
UT is doing just that by creating a strengths-based campus where students are taught to identify and leverage their strengths and build strategies that help them thrive. The top Gallup Strengths qualities identified among Tennessee students are restorative, achiever, competition, adaptability, and empathy.
These qualities describe students who are problem-solvers with the empathy to identify the challenges in our society even if they aren’t affected by those challenges personally.
“The more we learn about our students, the more we understand them,” Williams said. “When we understand them, we can create the experiences that they want, provide the resources they need, and the community they want to be part of.”
In fall 2020, UT’s Division of Student Success launched Vol Success Teams, an initiative that assigns every student an academic coach, an academic advisor, and a financial aid counselor. Students who engaged with their team reported higher GPAs and a greater sense of belonging.
This fall, the division launched the UT Success Academy, aimed at helping Black and Latino men who have lower retention and graduation rates than their peers despite coming in with comparable GPAs and test scores.
“They told us they needed a community where they belonged and the confidence to succeed,” Williams said.
The academy, which moves a group of students through four years of strengths-based studies and relationship building, was so successful in its first year that the university plans to create similar academies for groups such as military veterans and first-generation students.
“The University of Tennessee is that place where future leaders find their voice and reveal their courage, where young people thrive and learn how to step up in moments big and small,” Williams told conference attendees.
“Our graduates will one day work at your organization or company, and I promise you they will thrive there, too—all because they know how to leverage their strengths, they are ready to build consensus and they are willing to step forward in service and leadership.”
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