Podcast Episode 1 Transcript

From the Office of the Provost

Episode 1: Student Success at the University of Pittsburgh


Ann Cudd: Hello, and welcome to our podcast “From the Office of the Provost.” This is your host, University of Pittsburgh's Provost and Senior Vice Chancellor Ann Cudd.

As Pitt’s chief academic officer, I lead the team that develops and implements the University's academic vision. This includes providing general oversight of several schools and centers, as well as supporting more than 4,600 faculty members, and 35,000 undergraduate, graduate and professional students on all five Pitt campuses.

We focus on programs, strategies and initiatives that bolster and enhance the university's strengths and vision for growth and transformation. These priorities include maximizing student success, fostering a strong culture of diversity, improving access and affordability, supporting data-driven decision making, achieving efficiencies and cost savings, and leading with ethics and integrity.

This series will show how the Office of the Provost brings that progress in each of these areas to light. Over the course of this series’ run, you will hear from a handful of different players within the office and the University to talk about their amazing work, how we got where we are now, and what the future holds. On this episode, we meet with Vice Provost for Undergraduate Studies Joe McCarthy and Director of Student Success April Belback.

April and Joe, welcome.

Joe McCarthy and April Belback: Thank you. Glad to be here.

Cudd: We're here today to talk about student success, and more specifically, to talk about the Student Success Hub. So I wonder if we could start, Joe, by having you give us a little broad overview of this initiative.

McCarthy: Thanks, Ann. If you don't mind, I want to give a little bit of background just overall and what's been going on on the academic team, specifically the undergraduate studies portion of the academic team over the last five or six years.

Tiny bit of history lesson, I arrived at the University of Pittsburgh in ‘98. I'm a faculty member in the School of Engineering. For any of the listeners that have been here as long as I have, you know that the number of students and the student population in general has changed quite a bit over that timeframe. Just because I'm an engineering geek, I looked up some statistics and in ‘98, when I started at Pitt, the first-year class was 87% from the state of Pennsylvania, 80% of those students were white, and the six-year graduation rate at the time was 62%. In contrast, this past year, we had 54% of our incoming class was from the state of Pennsylvania, 61% of the students identified as white, and our graduation rate was 84%. So over that timeframe we've become a much more national university, we attract a much more diverse group of students, and the students achieve at a dramatically higher level.

One of the things that I think ultimately led to the start of the Student Success Hub, though, is an area of concern that we recognized in the mid teens of, you know, maybe 2015 or so was the number of students that came to Pitt from lower-income families was dramatically dropping. We actually hit a low of about 11% of the incoming class in 2015. And shortly after you arrived, Provost Cudd, as part of Pitt’s push toward making a Pitt education more accessible and affordable for students, you know, one of the things you challenged us to do was really try and reverse that trend, and so was born that Pitt Success Pell Match program, which has been really fantastically successful.

In recent years, the number of students that come from a family where they qualify for Pell Grant has increased to as high as 18%. This most recent year, we were at 16%. And in support of changing that population, what we've done in the Office of the Provost has become really much more proactive in providing centralized support to aid the schools in their effort to really help these students and just some examples of that is: launching the Forge Your Own Page Initiative, where we tried to help students to personalize their experiences while they're here at Pitt; starting an asset-based onboarding program that we call the Provost Academy that launched alongside that Pitt Success Pell Match program, and something that April started, bit of a level setting for advising staff with the Pitt advising certification and training programs.

I want to hand over to April to talk a bit more specifically about the Student Success Hub because she's really been a tremendous leader in this area. And I see the work that she's been doing in the Student Success Hub, as both a natural evolution of that proactive approach that we've espoused recently, as well as a significant step forward for the University.

Belback: Thank you so much, Joe. And thank you so much, Provost Cudd. I'm so honored to be here to talk about this work. As a first-generation college student myself it's just such an honor to do this work here at the University of Pittsburgh. And honestly, in part, the Student Success Hub was born really of my passion for this work and to help these students. But also, like Joe said, you know, for so long we've built these collaborations across the University, for my, you know, my time here but also in doing a partnership for the past several years — a research practitioner collaborative is what we'd like to call it — where we recognize that the transition to college is stressful for a lot of our students.

You know, students move to a new place, this thing we call college. They become disconnected sometimes to their own little network of support, and are expected to quickly integrate both socially and academically to this new context. And although the stress of that transition can affect anyone, students from traditionally minoritized and underrepresented backgrounds experience this stress disproportionately. And we know that because of a lot of the research that we've been doing the last few years, and we identified that through some projects that we've been doing with some folks, in collaboration with this practitioner collaborative. And data from some of those projects, one of which we call the Program Impact Project, suggests that there was opportunity to increase participation among our at-promise students, we call at-promise students our first-generation students, our Pell-eligible students and our underrepresented minority students.

So analyses with our Pitt transition study, our belongingness interventions, and our Program Impact Project suggested that programs supporting those at-promise students in the first year, especially during that transition to college, were beneficial in that transitional space. So we sought opportunities to scale those resources and really, the Student Success Hub was born. And what we like to say is that the Student Success Hub builds institutional collaborations in student success; to build insights and best practices and connect campus innovators, advisors, faculty, students; to reduce equity gaps for those at-promise students; and build a campus where every single student can feel that they belong. So it's really two things, right. It's a space in Langley Hall for students to find things like resources, programming, and advising. And it's also a network. So a network of campus collaborators dedicated to student success. And just like Joe said, it's a place because we've built, for four years, we've built those collaborations across the institution, so that students can come in and, you know, when they have a question, they can ask us, but we've built those collaborations for a long time.

Cudd: Yeah, so this is a fascinating story and great history that you've given us. I wonder, though, when you talk about a hub, and you talk about a space, I wonder if you could explain a little bit about what that space offers and what it's not. So, I read often about a one-stop shop where it's the registrar's office and advising offices and things like that. But the Student Success Hub that we've built really isn't quite that. It's more of a network of programs. Is that correct?

McCarthy: Yeah, that's a great question. And, you know, along with the increase that we've had in lower-income students at Pitt, something that we've gotten better about recently is tracking the fraction of students that are the first in their family to go to college, as April referred to them as first-generation students. And as you pointed out, a lot of institutions have tried to help those students get through what is often called the hidden curriculum, the bits about college that maybe don't come naturally to someone that's the first in their family to go to these schools, they've addressed that with a one-stop. So there's one physical place that the students can go to try and find whatever service that they need.

One of the strengths of Pitt is really the diversity of the first-year admitting schools and the overall schools and colleges that we have across campuses. And so building a one-stop that really is a physical space that tries to, you know, aggregate all of the unique resources that we have from all of these disparate units, isn’t really something that I think would would benefit Pitt and our students quite as effectively as it might elsewhere, because I think we'd have to lose some of that identity that each of the schools brings to the table. So in a sense, we actually think of the Student Success Hub, particularly leveraging what April said as being a place that's a host for partners to really collaborate with folks. We think of it as a virtual one-stop so that students that come and visit April and our colleagues within the Student Success Hub not only can get some of the help that they need directly in that physical space, but April and our teams, because of their broad institutional knowledge of the activities that are in each of these other disparate units, she will always know where to direct students so that they can, they can always go to the Student Success Hub to get advice as to where to go next, if not getting that help directly there.

Belback: And what we've tried to do is, you know, be the connector across campus. And so when a student has a question, or they're just not sure, you know, we've heard from students quite often, I'm not sure what to do next or, you know, where to find that next resource. So we're building that team to help students find that next resource or to be that person to ask that question to. And, you know, we're still building our team and trying to be those resources, and to provide academic coaching and to provide some things for students and to be the connector across the campus and still building resources out for students as well.

Cudd: Yeah, and it's not just building connections across campus, but also nationally with some national programs. So I wonder if you could describe some of those programs that our student success joins and is a part of.

Belback: Exactly right. So it's not just about connecting students and being the resource, but we have three specific programs and support programs inside the Hub in Langley Hall. One is the Kessler Scholars. So Kessler Scholars will start recruiting students — we're having some interviews right now — recruiting students and our first cohort will start in fall 2023. So Kessler Scholar supports first-generation students across their four years here at the University of Pittsburgh. It will be a cohort of 20 students, you know, like I said, first-generation students, high-touch advising to get them through their four years here at Pitt.

Next, we have what we call the Provost Scholars. So like Joe said, you know, we've done four years of the Provost Academy, right, and it's been highly successful to support students during a summer bridge program, but we want to support them a little bit more. So once they're here, what do we do to help them with, you know, academics, some studying, some coaching and some things to support them, too. So now we have a little bit more support to help them while they're here as well.

And then we have the TRIO McNair Scholars. So the TRIO McNair Scholars are 25 students that we're supporting to help to get them into a PhD program. So it's supporting undergraduate research and thinking about that next step, supporting underrepresented students, also first-gen students, to get them to that next step after college, too.

McCarthy: I just want to add something. Ann, you did point out the national focus of the Student Success Hub a little bit and I want to brag on April for a minute. You know, not only has April and our team been involved in these national programs, like the Kessler Scholars and the TRIO McNair, they've really been a national leader as well, right. One of the things that April has really brought to the fore and made a national resource for people that are interested in student success across the U.S. is in the Advising and Mentoring Summit that just happened a couple of weeks ago. Those that are interested in checking out the kinds of topics that we talk about, we do archive all of the recordings from the last six, Advising and Mentoring Summits on our website — personalized.pitt.edu — is a place where you can find those resources and there's really great stuff there about how we can support students, how we can support advisors to continue to do this work. And in our most recent event, like I said, that we had a couple of weeks ago, April welcomed over 1,300 participants from all over the U.S. in this virtual conference. So it was really exciting.

Cudd: Yeah, that's fantastic. So I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the reactions you're getting from students from this and how has this gone ever since your fabulous launch of this Student Success Hub?

Belback: Yeah, well, first thing I want to mention is we launched the Hub on First-Generation College Celebration Day and we partnered with a lot of different folks across campus. So that was exciting, and we hope to continue to have that celebration here at the University of Pittsburgh. The Hub is always full of students, which is a welcome surprise, I think, and we love that. So students can, you know, study in the Hub, find places to study. We have a Study PALS program with a collaboration with New Student Programs and the Provost Academy. So just as a place to you know, find somebody to study with a study leader. So there's that.

We have something called an Academic Success Academy, which we offer in the Hub that students can find just little workshops and things where you can find ways to, whether, your study skills or how to navigate a syllabus, how to, you know, when it's time for a test, and you need to, you know, how to navigate test anxiety, what does it look like to work through Canvas, how to communicate with faculty, you know, little things to academic tips and tools and technology skills.

We're finding that students come just find us by accident sometimes. And they walk in and they're like, “Oh, this is awesome.” And then they never leave, almost, they come and see us every single day. So we love that. It's happenstance, and then sometimes it's intentional. So we have both of those things and we love that. We're getting the word out there and hopefully, this will help, too.

But more than anything, we want advisors and faculty to refer. So that's an important piece, I think, as well and we're getting, you know, that information out there, too. So if an advisor or a faculty member, you know, needs a little bit of help in helping students navigate the University or once a student needs just a little bit of help, or has a question, just like I mentioned before, that's a way to help students. And, you know, when students find out about us, they know that they can get answers to questions, they can get the help that they need, and it's, like I talked about before, it's that transitional space.

So coming back to your question, I think students are, this is a welcome resource. And we're filling those gaps, right. And so another point is, it's the gaps that the student didn't know that they didn't know, and that's the kind of information that we're trying to fill. And we're just hearing some welcome pieces of information that students, you know, that students knew that didn't know that they didn't know.

And that's what we love.

Cudd: Great, great. So I'm thinking about faculty members who are out in the disciplines and think to themselves well, we are already doing the advising to explain to students, you know, how to best navigate their department, their program. How does this complement what they're doing in the advising in the disciplines?

Belback: So what we're trying to do is, like I said, kind of fill in the gaps for students. We don't want to take away from academic advising. We always want students to go to their assigned academic advisors when they have questions about that. But we're kind of supplementing that when students have extra questions, or need that extra help, and be that extra resource for students. And also be that extra resource for advisors, when they have those questions that they can't answer as well.

McCarthy: Yeah, there's something I would add to that, it’s something we learned during the pandemic, is how difficult it is to really communicate effectively to all of our students. And you know, for those of us as old as I am, email’s a great resource; that's not really the way to communicate with students. And so having students and faculty that, you know, in order for them to stay abreast of all the new developments that are going on at Pitt is a really difficult challenge. And so another place where the Hub can really fill in, is to be that place where you can find out all of the new resources that are available to advisors or to students, etc.

Cudd: So what do you see as the future of the Hub? What are some upcoming programs now and what do you see in the longer term for its future as well?

Belback: We just started with the Academic Success Academy, and we've had a couple of great workshops this semester. We're hoping to build that out as we continue the programming and we'd love to hear from folks what are some things that you think students need, and we hope to build that out in future semesters as well. We have an Instagram account where we share resources, just like Joe said. So we really want to know, you know, how to share those resources and if you have some information that you think students need to know about, or you would like to know about as a faculty member or an advisor, we'd love to hear about that. Our Instagram handle is @pittstudentsuccesshub. Also, we have an email account, so studentsuccess@pitt.edu. Email us anytime with questions or suggestions.

Cudd: Well, thank you so much, Joe and April, for coming and telling us about the fabulous Student Success Hub and all the services that we offer to students and to faculty and to advisors. I think it's going to be a fabulously successful initiative.

And thank you all for listening. This is “From the Office of the Provost.” I'm Provost and Senior Vice Chancellor Ann Cudd, and thank you for listening.