'The university cares about student success'

Students, faculty and staff examine student success and equity at annual Undergraduate Experiences Symposium

October 13, 2016
Undergraduate Experiences Symposium
Kat Vlahos (center), associate professor, College of Architecture and Planning, listens along with a large audience to a speaker at the Undergraduate Experiences Symposium on Oct. 7.

After six hours of focused thought, discussion and brainstorming, energy still ran high at CU Denver’s annual Undergraduate Experiences Symposium on Oct. 7.

Shortly before the event’s final words, nearly 200 students, staff and faculty members filled Room 2500 in the Student Commons Building. Some chatted about ideas from the day, some walked around the room to review the flip chart pages filled with notes and stuck to the walls, some danced to the pop music coming from ceiling speakers.

Organized by the Office of Undergraduate Experiences (UE), the symposium brings together students, faculty and staff from across the university to explore ways to enhance the undergraduate experience at CU Denver. This year’s symposium focused on success and equity, to address the problem of CU Denver students who do not finish their degrees and to examine the disproportionate number, nationally, of low-income, first-generation and students of color who do not finish their degrees.

“The day was really great,” said student attendee Renee Davis, who is majoring in international studies and voice performance. “It’s good to know the university cares about student success.”

Bridget Burns
Event keynote speaker, Bridget Burns from University Innovation Alliance (UIA), and Chris Chopyak (background), illustrating the words, thoughts and priorities generated by the symposium.

Sharing important ideas

In Room 2500, cheers went up as the event moderator called participants back to action for a final “lightning round” of idea sharing and recording. Attendees around the room stood up one at a time to report the answers that their table came up with to the event’s focal question: What are the appropriate ways for CU Denver to serve student equity and improve overall student success?

Answers included “engaging in genuine conversation,” “creating community connections” and “helping students find the right resources at the right time.”

As the attendees spoke, Chris Chopyak wrote furiously on a large piece of paper on the wall. An author and creative strategist, Chopyak was hired by the university to graphically capture the words, thoughts and priorities generated by the symposium and to translate them into a pictorial document of the event to be used for further work and follow-up.

“It’s great to have the opportunity to have faculty and staff together and so many diverse people in the same room,” said symposium attendee Soyon Bueno, director for Asian American Student Services. “The faculty got insights today into some of the obstacles that students face.”

Working toward real actions

Attendee at Undergraduate Experiences Symposium
Aswad Allen, assistant dean of diversity and inclusion for the School of Education & Human Development, listens to a presentation during the Undergraduate Experiences Symposium.

With working tables and break-out sessions like these, the symposium is designed to help attendees generate ideas and proposals that lead to real actions. Over more than a decade, the UE Symposium has generated recommendations, action steps, changes to campus culture, practices and policies.

“Every year, the symposium makes real things happen,” said Jeff Franklin, associate vice chancellor for UE. “It’s not just talking about an interesting topic. It’s about making something real happen that improves the quality of education and helps students be successful.”

Last year, the UE Symposium focused on High-Impact Practices (HIPs), after which the provost approved grant funding to support 70 faculty, staff and students to work on integrating HIPs into courses and programs.

This year, event organizers worked to draw more faculty and diverse university community members, and the symposium drew a record number of attendees, maxing out the event space capacity.

“We’re drawing more and more people into the conversation,” Franklin said. “This is the only event on our campus in which the entire campus—staff, faculty and students—is invited to work together and try to improve the undergraduate experience.”

Committing to student success and equity

Attendee at Undergraduate Experiences Symposium
Attendee at Undergraduate Experiences Symposium

When the lightning round concluded, the event keynote speaker, Bridget Burns, returned to the podium. As executive director of the University Innovation Alliance (UIA)—a consortium of 11 large public research universities collaborating to improve student success, especially for low-income students—Burns was brought in to bring national perspective to student success and equity.

“The UIA is a revolutionary event in American higher education,” Franklin said. “Nothing like this collaboration for the greater good has happened in U.S. higher ed before, and Bridget is at the center of that effort.”

After spending this day with them, Burns said it’s clear that CU Denver faculty and staff care deeply about their students.

“You chose to come here today to talk about how to do better for students, even while your email inboxes fill up,” she told them. “Who is in this room is a strong indicator of what’s important to this institution.”

Provost Rod Nairn stepped up to close the event, thanking the event organizers and congratulating the participants.

“After these events, we do follow up,” he said. “I promise you there will be outcomes, like the HIP outcomes from last year. Everybody is leaving here today even more committed to student success and equity.”

Guest Contributor: Amy Ventura