Spotlight - Florida Atlantic University

Karen Murray, Assistant Dean, New Student Orientation & Transfer Student Services, Florida Atlantic University (FAU).

Karen’s introduction to Appreciative Advising was foreshadowed early in her career when she learned and adopted Appreciative Inquiry strategies working on positive youth development initiatives. Already a convert to the appreciative mindset, Karen was quick to see the potential and reach of Appreciative Advising in the context of Higher Education.

Shortly after taking up her current post in 2015, Karen identified several issues with the existing freshman orientation program; notably, presentations were too long and not tailored to students’ immediate needs and concerns. The driving force dictating planning and delivery of orientation was the perceived need to deliver comprehensive content. However, looking through an Appreciative lens, Karen asked herself and her team, “How do we want students to feel?” This query represented a radical shift in thinking, perspective, and ultimately product. It was determined that instead of telling students about every aspect of the university’s workings, the goals of orientation should be to make students feel safe on campus; feel connected to the campus and student support service providers; feel connected to their peers, feel confident about starting their lives at the institution; and develop consciousness of their personal goals.

The Appreciative revamp came in two clear stages. In year one (2015) both program content and structure were changed to reflect an Appreciative approach. These changes included initiatives focused on the “Dream” stage of Appreciative Advising, such as creating opportunities for students to explore high impact education opportunities via interactive breakout sessions; “Disarm” focused initiatives such as creating smaller groups of students for increased interaction; offering tours early on day one of the program; moving the Student Code of Conduct and Campus Safety talks to day 1 of the program to set expectations and help student to feel safe; and decreasing presenters’ talking time and challenging them to identify what students need to know right now and make a lasting impression. In year two (2016) Appreciative Orientation was officially launched. As part of the program students are introduced to the Appreciative Advising framework and how FAU applies it to both orientation and academic advising. Staff now utilize “disarming” techniques in their presentations to achieve the objective of making students feel comfortable and confident about reaching out for help at a later stage. A focus for the parent track of orientation, meanwhile, is to answer their burning questions early in the program (e.g., housing, financial aid, how to pay bills, etc.). The intention is to disarm them and open the pathway for content related to campus engagement and student success strategies later in the program.

Survey data suggests that the new approach to the freshman orientation is reaping rewards. In 2016, 94.54% of first-year students “strongly agreed” or “agreed” that the orientation program increased their confidence to begin classes, while in 2015 that figure was 84.96%. Furthermore, there is encouraging qualitative data, with students commenting, “I feel important, acknowledged, and part of something” and “Overall, I am very shy and it’s kinda hard for me to fit in. This orientation gave me hope for my bright future here at FAU.”

Transfer Orientation is undergoing significant appreciative modifications as well as illustrated in an example from the four hour on campus session, which supplements an online course. Students are guided through a “Dream” exercise (see photos) which encompasses typical questions from the Appreciative Advising framework. Students are asked what their dream is, who the owner of that dream is, what strengths they bring to the table, who their support network is, and what their next step will be in making it become a reality.

The on-campus session is followed by academic advising and registration. Anecdotal evidence from academic advisors suggests the pre-advising work is paying off. Under the old orientation model, advisors complained how students would come to their first appointments at the end of the orientation program “like zombies;” whereas now, they come more driven and more aware of what they want to achieve. The orientation team is collecting data to back the anecdotal claims with quantitative surveys.

Taking things one-step further, the team has not only incorporated an Appreciative approach into orientation, but is also working toward incorporating it into every aspect of their work. Karen feels it is important that she and her department embody the Appreciative mindset, and so all interactions with students and staff are influenced by its principles.

There are some challenges that lay ahead. Next steps include bridging the gap between orientations and advising and finding ways to capture reliable data to thoroughly evaluate the effectiveness of Appreciative Orientation. A way to tell “the rest of the story” is critical. Karen’s team is committed to developing a strategy to track the orientation experience and demonstrate how it helps a student to design individualized academic, student engagement, and career development plans.