UTPB starting center for inclusion

Included in efforts to offer enhanced support to students, the Center for Student Belonging and Inclusion is one of many items taking shape at University of Texas Permian Basin.

Vice President of Student Affairs and Leadership Becky Spurlock said the office is underway in the sense that the university is creating a physical space for it in the Student Activity Center.

“We’re redistributing the items that are in that space to other spaces on campus, so we’re moving some of them down into the open area. Students will still have the pool tables and the foosball (tables), but we’re going to take that second floor space and turn it into the center,” Spurlock said.

She added that they have created a director position for that office and the hiring process is going on now and will conclude soon.

They hoped to open the office in the fall, but it looks like it will be the first part of spring.

“… It will develop new initiatives and strategies for supporting students from historically underrepresented backgrounds. It will also support international students,” Spurlock said.

She added that this could help attract more students to UTPB if people know it’s there.

“We know that belonging is such a critical part of student success. We’ve used different words over the years. We’ve talked a lot about community and community is important …  Belonging and community are slightly different. To get to belonging, you need to connect with people who you … can have some connection with and that you feel like that they understand your experience,” Spurlock said.

“And so the reality is, our students are looking for an experience to connect with students that are going through the same things they are. It’s time for us to create specific programs and support student groups as a way to embrace the fact that we’re a Hispanic Serving Institution; we’re a minority serving institution. That’s who we are and almost half of our students are first generation. We’ve got students from more than 45 countries. Half of the student body is first generation. Forty-seven percent of our students are Latinx, so it’s time for us to have those programs and support on our campus,” she added. “I do think it will serve our current students, but I also think … it will be important for recruiting these students.”

Spurlock said she has been at UTPB about two years. Soon after she arrived on campus, the Division of Student Affairs met and identified a strategic plan.

“… We identified five main goals and this was one of them; the idea that we wanted to serve people …,” she said.

“… We didn’t know it would be a center. We identified this as an idea, and as we’ve been working on those goals this is what’s been the result of that. So I would say the idea was planted two years ago. And it’s taken us until now to put all the pieces in place. We reallocated funding internally to be ready to launch the center.”

They will determine the center’s success in a variety of ways.

“One measure, is that we’ll look at participation rates and that will certainly tell us about some data, but it won’t give us the whole picture. But we’ll also typically use a variety of assessments, including one that’s called the … National Survey of Student Engagement that helps students identify their engagement with campus,” Spurlock said.

She said NSSE is a national assessment that UTPB takes part in year over year and it measures a variety of things including student engagement; how engaged your students are in your campus community and it helps you understand the experience they’re having. The new director of the center also will design some additional assessments based on its work.

Enhanced tutoring also will be offered through the Student Success Center. The Student Success Center offers a wide variety of services, Spurlock said.

“They have supplemental instruction, which is where you pair a student who did well in a course and then they are available to provide supplemental instruction outside of class. Sometimes those students are embedded in those actual courses. They go to class with the students and sometimes they just hold sessions outside of class. They’ve already had the class at another time,” she added.

As with the kindergarten through 12th grade schools, Spurlock said there has been learning loss in higher education due to COVID-19. She said this is shown by how they do on the Texas Success Initiative, or TSI. This measures college readiness in reading, writing and math. Spurlock said recent results have shown that many students need extra academic support for some classes.

“Given those two things, we’ve built out additional tutoring and programming. We have a developmental education program, and the director there, Cesar Sanchez has built out a summer bridge program that allows students to come and get some intensive support. We’re going to be replicating that program over the course of the year in smaller workshops. So we’ve really done a lot in terms of taking what was already a pretty successful program and going further with it to meet our students where they are,” Spurlock added.

If they see a continued need, they will continue to offer enhanced tutoring.

“… The team that works on this does really deliberate assessment so that we have a sense of what’s happening and where we are and then we’ll make adjustments as needed.  …,” she said.

About 18 months ago, UTPB also launched Falcon Maps, which is their programming for advising.

“… Falcon Maps creates a degree mapping system for students so that they can look at information from the beginning of their college experience and see this is a path to graduation. Here’s what this looks like from the beginning. And, of course, you know that information has always been available, but we’ve really packaged it and made it, I think, more understandable for folks. We’ve grouped some majors into metamajors to say okay, these have a similar academic curriculum so if you are in one major and you decide you want to make a change, if you make a change within your metamajor you’re likely to be able to use those same classes to be able to keep you on track. That doesn’t mean that you might not switch. … It’s a very different situation if you switch from sociology to psychology than if you switch from sociology to engineering. It’s really meant to help students be able to see their path to graduation, take some ownership in how they’ll decide to get there, and understand their options as they’re choosing majors.”

Spurlock said that program is going well, but like most things, they will continue to assess it and figure out how to continue to improve it.

“… The program is actually two-sided. It’s focused on students, but it also focuses on employees in certain areas to help them grow their training in holistic advising and support our students through the process,” she added.

Spurlock said the university is excited about all of these initiatives.

“We feel like we can make a real difference to the students that are going to be here and who need help to get to graduation. That’s our goal. President (Sandra) Woodley has been very clear about that. It’s clear in our strategic plan. We are looking to double the number of degrees and so that of course means growing as a campus. But it also means retaining more of the students that we do have and assisting them through the twists and turns of college life to get them all the way to commencement.”

She added that the number of Texans who have some college, but no degree is “significant and we want to reduce that.”

The university also is encouraging students to get the COVID-19 vaccine through incentives.

There will be an Oct. 6 drawing where the grand prize is a free semester of college. Spurlock said the university feels the vaccines are safe and effective and are the best option for keeping people healthy on campus and remaining in person.

They have found different ways to encourage people to take the shot such as vaccine clinics on campus.

“We’ve provided information. One of the things that we’ve done recently in the last several months is we’ve created an opportunity for people that may have questions to connect with us via a short form and we’ll connect them to a medical provider so they can have a confidential conversation. So if somebody still has questions, we wanted to create a pathway for them to be able to ask those questions. A number of people have taken that up as an option, so as part of that, you know, we were encouraged through the UT System, the chancellor encouraging all campuses to do everything they can to mitigate COVID, and then of course the federal money that we received also had allowable expenses for things like vaccine incentive programs.”

“We felt like we have resources to do it and imperative to do it. And we felt like it was important in communicating to our campus that we wanted to do absolutely everything we can to support people pursuing a vaccine. We had our first drawing last week. People were very excited. The winners were all very excited and we’ll do another drawing this Wednesday and we’ll keep going through Oct. 6.

Spurlock said the response from the community has been positive.

UTPB has had a care team for some time, but we’re expanding our care team this year.

“That’s a team of folks who engage in early intervention, so if a faculty member notices that maybe a student stops coming to class, or they’re in class but they’re not as engaged as they once were they can file, what we call an early alert that goes to a team of people who will then reach out and support that student and figure out is something going on, do they need extra support somehow. We know that early intervention keeps small problems for turning into big problems.”

“There’s a lot of research out there that says that students will often make a choice to stop out of college over what are very solvable problems. The Lumina Foundation did a study and found that for most students, if they had a significant financial issue and it was even only amounting to about $250 that that might be enough for them to stop out. We really try to catch things early so that we can help people before they become, or feel like they become, insurmountable. We’re really proud of our care team. They did tremendous work during COVID, as you could imagine. But we are excited to have partnered with Students Success and we have a new retention office. And that team, which is a conversion from a grant that we had,” Spurlock said.

She added that they often tell students at orientation that they are so glad they chose UTPB and that they selected a UT quality education.

“But they’re doing it on a campus where they’re going to be known. They’re going to be seen. Their classes are not huge. They’re going to be taught by professors and so consequently they get to have this really incredible experience, but it’s harder to get lost in the crowd here,” she said.

Spurlock noted that UTPB has a lot of ways to help from emergency funds to partnerships with local nonprofits.

“We have a fantastic food pantry on campus. If it’s an academic issue, we can get them the academic support they need. We really do everything we can think of to support students through the process because we’re very serious about doubling the number of degrees,” Spurlock said.