Episode 98 - Innovation in Higher Education: Lessons Learned - SUU's Assistant Coaches for Excellence and Success (ACES) Program

President Scott L Wyatt and Steve Meredith sit down with SUU’s Dr. Eric Kirby, assistant vice president for student affairs and Ryan Bailey, coordinator of completion and student success. They discuss SUU’s main retention strategy, the Assistant Coaches for Excellence and Success (ACES), a peer mentoring program for first year students.

Full Transcript

Steve Meredith: Hi again everyone, and welcome to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott L Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah. I'm your host, Steve Meredith, and I'm joined in-studio today, appropriately about 12 feet apart during these COVID riddled times, by President Wyatt. Scott, good morning. How are you?

Scott Wyatt: Terrific. It's good to see you there on the other side of the room.

Meredith: Yeah. When you want me to talk, just send up a little flare and that way I'll notice. [Both laugh] So, this has been an interesting semester for a lot of reasons, COVID one, but one of the things that we have been talking about during our... really our 2020-2021 podcast season is innovation. And you and I harp on that a lot and we decided that we would go revisit some of our innovations and see how they are doing and see what the highs have been and maybe if there have been any lows or any changes necessitated by feedback or whatever, just to check back in with our innovations and see how they're doing. And we have two guests that are great staff members from here at SUU today to talk about one of those innovations. Why don't you introduce them?

Wyatt: Yeah. This is really a great topic, because this is the topic about students succeeding. You know, sticking to the task and going all the way to completion. We're delighted to be joined today by Ryan Bailey, who is the Coordinator of Completion and Student Success, and Eric Kirby, who is an Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs, and possibly the Chief Retention Officer. [All laugh]

Dr. Eric Kirby: Possibly. Thanks for having us.

Wyatt: Yeah. It's... so, if we go back, this is one of those good reviews, but if we go back, when I arrived at Southern Utah University, we were on a multi-year retention trajectory that was going down.

Meredith: Yes.

Wyatt: And it had been going...

Meredith: And I think 63% or 64% was right about where we were when you arrived. I just happen to be writing a document about this, so I have that ready off the top of my head.

Wyatt: I don't remember how many years the trend was going down, but it was four or five or six. And it was interesting, because the graduation rate was actually going up and the retention rate was going down, which we knew the result of that would be that the graduation rate would fall with the retention rate and eventually start dipping, and it did. But we knew we had to do something about retention, and we had been doing so many things... I say "we," none of us were here at the time, but the school had been doing so many things but none of them were taking. And so, we flipped everything around and we hired a new vice president and said, "Your focus is outcomes." And then he hired Eric Kirby and said, "Your focus is retention." And ultimately, Eric Kirby hired Ryan as the old ACE.

Meredith: The original ACE.

Wyatt: We'll get to the original ACE.

Ryan Bailey: One of them, yeah.

Wyatt: Anyway, let's talk about the ACES program. Eric, why don't you tell us what ACES stands for and just a brief history of it?

Kirby: Absolutely. So, ACES stands for Assistant Coaches for Excellence and Success. And as you mentioned, President...

Wyatt: These are peer mentors.

Kirby: Peer mentors. Upper class students that have typically survived the rigors of first, second year, kind of know their way around the classroom, around campus and can answer a lot of those questions. And when you're looking at retention as a whole, I often get asked, "Is there a silver bullet?" And the answer is, "No," but if I had to pick one, peer mentorship would probably be the closest thing to a silver bullet in helping change the culture and what you're trying to do in retention. So, the history of it—real quick synopsis and then we can dive into anything we want to—going back six years, we recognized as we started studying Generation Z that this was a group that was coming in and needed... I use this lightly, but a lot of "hand holding." It's a group that had been overshadowed by what's been termed as "helicopter parenting," or "lawnmower parents," and consequently, in many regards through no fault of their own, need a lot of help. More importantly, they're looking for that advocacy, that friendship, that type of mentorship as they transition from high school to college which can be really scary. So, we eliminated our orientation program, we eliminated our "O leaders" is what they were called, and Ryan was one of our original "O leaders" that then transferred into being one of our ACES, and recognize that one of the problems we were facing at SUU, we were dealing with chunks. So, our presidential ambassadors were doing great at recruiting and then they would transfer them over to our "O leaders" that were just responsible for the students over the summer. And then as soon as the summer was over, our orientation leaders would then transfer them to... wait, no one. No one was waiting for the freshmen once school started. So, we needed to develop a system that was a tad bit seamless that provided a smooth handoff from our presidential ambassadors on the recruitment side to really going the full year that that freshman was around on campus and we weren't just saying, "Welcome to SUU, glad you hung out with us over the summer, see you later." So, by understanding Generation Z, understanding that it was just a rough transition into the university for these students who needed a little extra help, that was kind of the basis foundation for us wanting to develop something that was a little bit more suitable for the needs of the students. And that was the impetus, if you will, for the ACES program.

Wyatt: Ryan, you've been working on this from the beginning.

Bailey: Yeah. Originally I said "no" to being in an ACE, and then he came back around. But yeah, I've been here as a student and a grad assistant and now as a staff member. So, it's been a fun journey for sure.

Kirby: Yeah, he's been from the get-go in the weeds and he's been through the good, the bad, the ugly and everything in between and so we can definitely dive into some of that stuff as well. But it's taken a lot of different forms to where it is now, where I think... well, granted every year we tweak and we modify, but we started off with eight. There were eight original ACES and now due to our proven ability, we're not up to 26 full-time ACES.

Wyatt: And each ACE is assigned to how many students?

Kirby: Yeah, there are about 110.

Bailey: The average, actually—I just did some numbers yesterday, not in preparation, just coincidence—about 126 is the average cohort as of yesterday.

Wyatt: Ryan, why does this work?

Bailey: Umm...

Wyatt: Or how do you know that it works?

Bailey: Yeah, I mean, we've done a lot of data and some of it's pretty accurate and some of it is more of that, "Look at it and see how things flow," but we get a lot of positive feedback from students as they visit with their ACE, whether it's coming on a visit over the summer and getting prepared to go, we constantly rate 9.8, 9.9 out of 10 on average for these surveys that we survey students. We feel like we've done our part teaming up with other Student Affairs and Completion and Student Success initiatives to help retention go up, and as we've seen that number rise, we feel like it is good. But I think it just provides a different support system that's traditionally been offered on campus where there's always been staff members, there's always been academic advisors, financial aid counselors, but this way, every student has another student where maybe they can ask the nitty-gritty questions, or, "You just did this last year, how did you combat tough roommates? Or asking somebody on a date? Or homesickness?" And they're getting feedback from someone who is in their own shoes which I think has been really successful.

Kirby: Yeah, and I think as well two of the things that really help this be successful, and this is just all of us in the consumer world, we hate getting the bouncer out.

Bailey: Yeah.

Kirby: We hate calling it an entity or a company or a credit card company, whatever, and going from four to five, six people, and oftentimes that frustration leads to us either backing out of the company or not pursuing. But the ACES is basically the "one stop shop" for all incoming students, no "ifs, ands, or buts" about it. The ACE contacts their incoming student within 24 hours of that student of depositing at SUU and basically says that much. "I am your one stop shop; I am your end all and be all of anything you need. I may not know the answers, but I'm going to get you where you need to go." And so, that student doesn't have to know where the registrar's office is or where the cashier is or how to make that payment. They just need to know they need to contact their ACE. They need one number, one name, and that's it for their entire first year. And I think that has relieved a lot of pressure from both parents and students knowing, "This is the only person I need to contact to get answers. And they may not know, but they're going to get me to where I need to go." And I think that is what's made it so successful, and then as Ryan alluded to, too often what we find with this generation is that they're not as willing to talk to administrators about problems that they're having. They are so used to, on social media or just with their friends, asking or talking about, "Hey, I'm struggling" or, "Hye, I need help here. This is a dumb question, but where is the GSC at?" Or, "How do I register?" And they're far more comfortable to go to a peer than they are to a parent or to an administrator. So, I think those two things alone have really given this program some success there.

Wyatt: Well, and you've got an office that everybody knows. It's prime real estate in the Student Center.

Kirby: Yeah.

Bailey: That was big for us, getting that space.

Wyatt: How long have you had that space?

Kirby: Yeah, so that space we've been in three years now. We're heading into our third year now. And that space used to be student government. That was SUUSA's space and back in the day, we kind of gave some ultimatums to student government. "Start using that office more effectively to help students out," and at the end of the day, they realized they weren't going to be able to do what the ACES were going to be able to do, so we swapped and slid student government over and ACES came in and we've turned it into what we call "The Nest," which is the student center on campus. It's the equivalent of a kiosk in the mall. This thought that you go to and you get maps, you get help. We get students coming in asking for dating advice, we get students coming in asking where to get a haircut, where to buy clothes, how to... it's fun the question, but it's unreal the amount of students. And not just first year students, either. It's starting to turn into... we're seeing sophomores, juniors, seniors, graduate students come in and getting help there at our one stop shop.

Bailey: Yeah, it's been fun. And some of them, there conditioned now that they've had the next for a couple of years. So, these older students have set an expectation that, "I can go there."

Meredith: So, The Nest, that's the name of the space?

Bailey: Yeah, the center. But just yesterday, we had a senior come in and ask where the ELC is, which isn't too far, and they said, "I'm a senior, I should know this, but where is the ELC? Where's the Testing Center?" And it was just a cool reminder that that's why we're there. And one of the ACES brilliantly just chatted with them and then walked them as far as they needed to go and got them connected. So...

Kirby: Yeah, and President, going back to your question, "How do we know that this is successful?" We looked at data in our post-orientation survey under the old model, which was I believe... what did we call it? Flight Academy?

Bailey: Flight School?

Kirby: Flight School, yeah. Before we even had a pilot program here, it was called "Flight School," and we changed it to Thunder U after we...

Wyatt: Before we had a flight program.

Meredith: Yeah.

Kirby: Yeah.

Wyatt: An aviation program, we called it Flight School.

Kirby: Flight School, and then we changed it to Thunder U. But looking at post... or old survey data compared to our current summer model of what the ACES are offering through personalized visits, which is a new thing, and then also doing surveying at the end of the first year and things like that, in comparison, it's night and day. We were in the five points out of a ten point scale. We were five, six, maybe seven on the high end on a few of the questions. And now we're consistently... I don't even think we go below nine on the current asking the same questions about satisfaction of their visits, do they feel they have a person on campus that they can trust or is advocating for them? Do they feel more comfortable being ready to come to college? Do they feel they know where to go for help? All of these questions have skyrocketed under the new program. So, through the data-drive decisions we're making, we feel that this is working. And then a lot of anecdotal as far as students just expressing help, phone calls from parents, high school counselors, other things saying, "This is amazing. That one-on-one personalized experience you give to every incoming student for their entire first year."

Wyatt: So, we had a gorgeous campus, caring faculty, small class sizes, the culture and nature of the university was the same before and after. What changed was the university, we abandoned a whole series of retention initiatives that didn't seem to be working, starting the ACES program, and retention has grown every year since then.

Kirby: Yeah.

Wyatt: And your surveys suggest that students really like it far better than other programs. So, that seems like it's pretty good evidence that this is the secret sauce.

Kirby: Yeah, a 10% increase in retention in four years.

Wyatt: It's more like 13% or 14%.

Kirby: Yeah, percentage points, you're absolutely right.

Wyatt: Percentage increase or percentage point increase.

Meredith: That's right.

Wyatt: Well... so, what has gone well in the innovation? So, in terms of making the shift, starting a new program that's very different than anything that had been done in the past, what are the couple things that have gone well or better than expected?

Kirby: Yeah, I'll jump in, and feel free to... I think some of the things that have gone really well: personalized visits.

Bailey: Yeah.

Kirby: This was something that we were basically getting rid of best practices by eliminating these... previously, students had to pick from one of ten days to come to campus over the summer, and we spoon-fed every student the same thing. It was a set orientation where we said, "Here are the ten things or whatever that you need to learn," and we treated every student the same. And that's what best practices across the nation said was great for orientation. We got rid of that model and we said, "You know what? This generation wants individualized attention." And our surveys, when we looked back at the previous five years, were actually indicating that. That students didn't want to know about XY and Z. They want to know where to get housing, they want to know where to get financial aid. So, we eliminated that and created this personalized visit system where every student can choose from about 32 different things that they want to do on an individualized basis over the summer. They set that up electronically, it goes right to their ACE, the ACE then goes about creating that customized schedule for them, sends them back in itinerary saying, "Welcome to SUU. It sounds like you want to take care of financial aid, you want to meet with the Veteran's Center, you want to get a tour of our P.E. building, you want a personalized tour of your classrooms, you want to meet with the dean or faculty. Here is your itinerary, plan on about six and a half hours on campus, I look forward to seeing you." That is not in the best interest of us as a university.

Meredith: Right.

Kirby: It is a very time consuming model.

Bailey: Yeah.

Kirby: But that was something that I think went extremely well and has been very positive in ensuring that every student is accomplishing what they need to when they arrive, and we're not presuming we know what they want. We're allowing them to tell us what they're feeling uncomfortable with, what they're uneasy about, and I think that was a big shift. We were the only ones at that time that i was aware of that was doing anything like that, and so that was a big gamble to go against best practices and say, "We're going to do something that is completely different that is not staff friendly or time friendly to offer this to all 2,000+ incoming students." That would be one thing I'd...

Bailey: Yeah, and I think it did take some time, but it's really helped the students. President Wyatt, you talked about that. Before the ACES, after the ACES, the culture, the campus, it didn't change much, but that allowed the students to participate, to start in that culture before they ever get here because they got to meet with their advisor, they got to meet with Carmen Alldredge in the Disability Resource Center or the Career Center or the Honors Program or these things that they desperately want information of. So, that was very big and worked really well. And I think one thing that we started pretty early, whether it was the ACES before they kind of got their cohorts or not is, we decided to be pretty intrusive and sometimes that can be scary to seem annoying or that we're bugging students, but we average over 30 contacts per student, per ACE if that makes sense. Is that the way I want to say it? Each ACE contacts their students about 30 times over the summer and that's an average. And then we started doing things beyond just emailing and phone calling. We had students get Google Numbers so that their information is protected, but texted students. We found these preferred methods of communication and we didn't shy away from them. So, with the goal of teaching them, "Hey, you should still check your email because your professors might send you your syllabus or information, but I'm going to work with you on the avenue that works best for you." And we've always encouraged that. This year, we've got ACES that have made opt-in Group Me's for their students where their students can opt in and the ACES are sending updates about campus events or things like that. We've had some unique trial and errors in that way too, but I think we've always had this goal of being impactful and being intrusive in communication which has helped us stay the course and make sure we're not letting folks slip through the cracks even though they might send text after text and call after call and voicemail and email after email. Eventually I think we've seen the fruit in that persistence as well.

Meredith: So, that's 30 outgoing contacts, right?

Bailey: Correct, that doesn't include...

Kirby: Yeah, that doesn't include...

Meredith: Incoming their direction.

Kirby: And the other thing is, when we say "personalized," I think sometimes we may just think we're throwing that word out, but it's truly... each of our ACES get to know their students personally, and let me describe some of the ways that we do that. We have an intake questionnaire, we call it a TTQ, but it's a "T-Bird Takeoff Questionnaire" where we ask every student a series of about 64 different questions that help us gauge... help us identify some red flags, some success, things like that, but it allows us to get to know the student. Each ACE is responsible for creating what's called a "scorecard" on their student, where they basically rank the likelihood of that student's ability to persist and graduate here at SUU. The ACE creates a portfolio where they take the student's photo so they can start getting to know their face associated with their name, they start identifying fun facts in the TTQ about their student—do they like diet coke? Do they have cats? And they also keep notes from the personalized visit on these students. This student's going to a Lake Powell trip, this student is interested in music, this student is trying out for the dance team... and the ACE is consistently reviewing these notes and will do "just in time" personalized outreach. "Hey, good luck on the tryout today." "Hey, I know you had a math test today." "Hey, I know you're a big fan of Diet Coke. I could use a drink; do you want to come down and get a drink with me?" It's personalized in that level and we've come to realize that fostering that genuine friendship is critical to having that success and that trust where these students will come back over and over and over again to that ACE for that help, guidance, and registration advice, when they're grades are plummeting, they have someone they can go to and say, "Hey, I really could use that Diet Coke right now. I really hit the low on my math class, can you help me?" And those relationships are formed. So, it's not personalized meaning we just know their name. I mean, these ACES are trained... they usually go to about 70 to 100 hours of training before they start reaching out to their cohorts through social skills, through handshake skills, eye contact skills, name memorization, FERPA, diversity training, pronouns. You name it, these students are trained on it. Even dining etiquette.

Bailey: Mhmm.

Kirby: Dress protocol. So, they are ready and willing to truly offer a unique, personalized experience for every single student who is in their cohort. And it's something that is really cool to see in action and it changes lives. These students feel it from the very first outreach and they know they've got someone on campus that cares about them. It's fun to see.

Bailey: Mhmm.

Meredith: So, we've talked about it from the incoming student's perspective; what's life for an ACE like?

Kirby: Yeah, I'll kick it over to Ryan since he's lived it and now he oversees it.

Bailey: Yeah, they are busy students. It doesn't seem to ever stop. You know...

Meredith: It seems like it would be a certain personality type. So, it's not just a student that's a junior or a senior...

Bailey: Yeah.

Meredith: But the kind of person that would be very comfortable saying... you know, reaching out all the time and being...

Bailey: Yeah. So, I would say they need to have either a willingness to learn or pretty good time management skill. But as far as personality, we do like a mix. We try our best to make sure that the ACES program mirrors campus.

Meredith: So, you have some introverted type...

Bailey: Introverts, extroverts...

Meredith: Oh, interesting.

Bailey: Domestic students, international students, students from Utah, students from out, male, female...

Kirby: LGBTQ students...

Bailey: Yes, exactly. So, we don't necessarily look for just our extroverts. I'm actually an introvert in my heart of hearts, or more introverted I guess, so if I had a whole team of extroverts I might go crazy. But mostly, if they have that willingness to learn and to stretch themselves, that's it. But it is a lot of training at first, a lot of listening to anecdotes from me, usually we try to invite guest speakers, whether it's Dr. Kirby—eric—or even we've had President Wyatt in the past and the Mindy Bensons, the President's Cabinet come in and share leadership skills and things like that. But once they get their students, it's kind of all hands on deck. I give them... I say "some"... a decent amount of... what's the word I'm looking for? "Here's what you should do" instruction.

Meredith: Yeah.

Bailey: But as they get to know their students, I really rely on them to be the expert on Johnny or on Makayla or on [insert student's name.] And so, we arm them with the ability to know resources on campus, we teach them and practice with them about how to say, "What does this student really need? Is this it? Or is this just the tip of the iceberg?" We train them on asking questions and digging deeper and surface level besides getting to know your student. And so, they're busy. In the summer, they're 40 hours a week. Those score cards that Eric was talking about, that takes up a lot of time because it's not just "go through and write things down." It's analyze and it's make game plans for each individual student and they make a communication plan for each student and I give them about 10 points so they have a starting point, but beyond that, if they find out someone likes cats and it's National Cat Day, we help them learn that that might be a great thing to send your student to let them know that you're there and that you love them and you care about them and it's not just always business, business, business...

Meredith: Mhmm.

Bailey: But it's them. So, that's the summer. We invite the students to come and I think that's maybe the favorite thing of the ACES. I would say that was my favorite thing, but I constantly hear these personalized visits where they finally get the chance to meet face-to-face with their students and connect them. And we do about 800-900 of those visits a summer.

Meredith: Wow.

Bailey: So, they're pretty busy there. And then transitioning to school, they only work 20 hours a week compared to 40 and so they're time management has to increase with school and significant others and friends and roommates move back. But it's kind of a 24/7 life as an ACE anyways of what your students need and finding a way to get them there. We do one-on-one, required one-on-one meetings with students and ACES each semester as a check in. and sometimes, students take that one meeting and that's enough and other times, students are coming in bi-weekly, weekly, monthly in between as needed. But they're really busy and their main focus is that cohort. And we've actually pulled some things away from the ACES to give them more time to do that, other responsibilities they used to have.

Kirby: Yeah, and I think as well it's worth noting that it's not all roses at times. When I oversaw them for three years and then for the past three that Ryan's been doing it, you run the risk of high burnout rate with these peer mentors, because it's go, go, go. They're getting texts non-stop. And we try to help them understand setting up barriers and parameters, but they're getting texts at two in the morning from students that have just had a mental breakdown. They're getting texts at 3:00am from a discussion from a student who just came out of the closet to their mom and dad and has now been disowned and they need to pick the pieces up the next morning. So, these ACES are taking these students to evening club events or chaperoning... they do a mix of everything. So, I view one of Ryan's roles as kind of the ACE of the ACE is often what I call Ryan, because he's responsible for making sure the ACES are good. The ACES take care of their students, but he's doing regular one-on-ones with the ACES. You're also going to see us have some fun with the ACES because we recognize in this high-paced, high-demand environment, they need to relax and unwind as well. So, we make sure they're familiar with CAPS, they're doing a lot of take self-care, but you'll see us out playing wiffle ball or playing giant Jenga because these ACES need time to unwind and do that as well. So, it's awesome, but you can run a really high burnout rate with what these ACES go through.

Wyatt: So, for an innovator who is trying to create a program like this or a different program, what have been the difficulties? Has there been a mistake made?

Bailey: Yeah. [Laughs]

Kirby: I think one or two, for sure.

Meredith: Never. [Laughter]

Wyatt: Give us a couple examples of things that didn't go right and how you worked through that.

Kirby: Yeah, so I'll jump in, just some of the stuff from the beginning. When we originally created the ACES program, I don't think we fully grasped the potential of what the ACES could be and what they could mean to their students. So, we had them "locked away," but we had them assigned to an academic advisor. And we thought that dividing the students up by cohort based on major may be best and that the ACES could help alleviate some of the burden that our Academic Advising team was feeling. So, ACES in early years were responsible for helping add or drop a class, helping fill out a form, or maybe helping our advisors do some group advising.

Bailey: Probation students...

Kirby: Probation students, meeting with probation students. But as we started recognizing that in many instances, the students would gravitate more to the ACES for a lot of these one-offs, we recognized that the potential was huge. So, that was a good trial and error. It was a good foundation, but we broke them off of the academic advising and they just reported to me at that point in just an ambiguous field. They were just my peer mentors. And we started taking them by cohort, but we continued to leave them broken up by major, and that failed miserably because if you look at how connections are formed and other things like that, they're more gradual as opposed to just by major, and more importantly—I'm stereotyping here—certain majors carry certain personalities, and so some of the ACES struggled with just dealing with all groups of engineers.

Bailey: Yeah. That was my student cohort, and one of my colleagues had the theater students who are a little bit more typically/stereotypically engaging and she would rave about, "I had these calls and these experiences" and then I started to feel like I was...

Kirby: "These engineering students aren't returning my calls."

Bailey: Yeah.

Kirby: "They want nothing to do with me, they're kind of structured and they're going."

Bailey: Yeah.

Kirby: And we're obviously stereotyping here, so we went back... just, there's no rhyme or reason. As a student trickles in, Ryan just assigns them on down the list. And so, every ACE is assigned engineering students, theater students, it's a hodge-podge, it's a good demographic. Students have the ability to change an ACE if they're just not gelling, we'll get them with an ACE that better suits their needs, but those were a couple of things right off the bat that we definitely recognized that it needed to be more organic as opposed to a forced assignment.

Bailey: Mhmm.

Kirby: That was a big shift in why we... the other thing is getting the cohorts down. We started with our cohorts way too big. When we had eight ACES to begin with, we're dealing with 200, 300 students per ACE and that didn't allow for that personalized attention, which is, I think, the essence of what we're trying to do. And I even argue that I think 120 where we're currently at, 124, is still a little too much for an ACE to really get personalized. But being able to get these cohorts down has really been a big thing. Creating the year-long experience, where before we tried a summer transition into a fall transition, that was another mistake we made. Now, we sign our ACES to a year-long contract and say, "You're in it from May to May. If you want to go on a study abroad, if you want to do other things, this isn't the program for you. We need you here for the full year." That was another mistake we made, but I think we've got that corrected. Ryan, what else would you add?

Bailey: That was a big one. I think the other thing going back to your point, Steve, is I think especially when our cohort was by major, we looked for probably the incorrect things in our student mentors to join the team. "Does your major... " because ideally, we'd hire an engineering major to oversee the engineering majors, and I think we were missing some of those diamond in the rough people that came in and actually got what we were going for. Got the vision, got the fire. And so, when we switched to that randomized cohorts, it allowed us to break away from some of those... "They were this leadership role on campus, so they'd be good." And we allowed students to apply and we interviewed them and we asked them those questions and probably not the most typical interview questions are the ones we ask. "How do you define love?" "If you had an ACE, what was your experience? If it was good, tell us about it. If it was bad, tell us about it." And we were able to, I think find some students that traditionally we wouldn't have found that really changed our program.

Kirby: Yeah.

Wyatt: Well, what you've really created is a concierge service.

Bailey: Yeah.

Wyatt: So, what you're trying to do is hire students that are inclined to be successful at that kind of a service.

Bailey: Yeah

Wyatt: Rather than randomly selecting a student from each major. This is your public relations team.

Bailey: Yeah.

Wyatt: Or personal service team or however we describe that. When I think about this program, I'm thinking of what an amazing experience it is for the ACES. What an education for them..

Bailey: Yeah.

Wyatt: A job where they can get paid, but an amazing education. So, those are a couple of the challenges. What about second year? The ACES... the goal isn't retention; the goal is graduation.

Bailey: Yeah.

Kirby: Yeah.

Wyatt: Retention is, of course, one step towards it. It's a means to the end. What are we doing for the sophomore to junior retention?

Kirby: Yeah. So, after we realized that we didn't have a smooth transition between our recruitment team and us, and I think for the first three years in kind of buckling the ACES program down and getting that going, we then recognized we didn't have a smooth transition from first to second year. That really, after the student completed their freshmen year, their first year at SUU with the ACE and all the attention they were getting, as they headed into that summer before their sophomore year, we basically said, "Thanks, we'll see you later."

Meredith: "We'll see you later." Yeah.

Kirby: And we recognized, "That's not a good model." So, as we started developing the ACES program, we started keeping some ACES... we started with just four of them and they fed into what we call the SOAR program, which is our sophomore success program.

Meredith: That's S-O-A-R? SOAR, right?

Kirby: Yeah, that's exactly right. And you're starting to see a lot of themes...

Meredith: I just want to be clear.

Kirby: Like "Nest" and "Soar" and things like that. We're Thunderbirds here and so a lot of it plays off this kind of bird mentality. So, the other reason for that is across the nation, you're dealing with what's called the "sophomore slump." At Southern Utah University, we were experiencing about a 13% to 15% of our sophomores were not coming back for their junior year. So, we... and it's not uncommon just for SUU, it's a nationwide problem, this sophomore slump. So, we started tackling that by keeping some of the ACES, we started calling them SOAR ACES, S-O-A-R, they're now called LEADS, but our LEADS are responsible for as soon as that first year is over, our first year ACES will introduce them to their LEADS and say, "Hey, we want to let you know that we have a program that's for our second year students. And it's not like... it is, but it isn't like our first year program." Because some students are ready to be done with their ACE at that point.

Bailey: Yeah.

Kirby: They're like, "It was great the first year, but I'm... "

Meredith: Right.

Kirby: I'm ready for...

Meredith: "Don't need it now."

Kirby: Yeah, "I don't need it now." And so, we help them understand that they're going to have a LEADS there that's going to be there for them just like their ACE, but that LEADS is going to be very intentional in helping them start taking that next step up. We're going to start connecting them with jobs or we're going to start connecting them with internships or we're going to start developing them professionally, we're going to start letting them know about resume workshops, we're going to start introducing them to career fairs and to setting them up with alumni that they're interested in. So, more of that middle ground that we're there to hold their hand if they still need it a little bit, we're there to help them with class registration, things like that, but we're ready to help them advance as far as they want to go. So, we've been doing this LEADS program now for three years and it's a program that I oversee, and I think we're seeing some success with our sophomore persistence. We've seen about a 5% increase among our sophomore to junior, but I think more importantly is we're minimizing the melt that was occurring after our first year into our second year. Because now, that summer while ACES are worried about incoming students, our LEADS now make sure that after that first year, they're reaching out to all of these students that are now going into their sophomore year. They have a set communication plan; they're doing specific outreach. "How's your summer going? What are you most excited about your sophomore year?" We offer personalized visits for all of our sophomore students that they can come onto campus and get a LinkedIn profile set up, we do a professional headshot for them if that's what they want to do. So, it's unique. It's not class tours, it's more customizable for our sophomores. And this year was the first time our LEADS are starting to go after juniors a little bit. Ideally, what we want to do is continue to have a big ACES program at the beginning, but then have LEADS for all sophomores, juniors, seniors. Their cohorts can be a little bit bigger because usually the students aren't as demanding or need as much time, but start catering to what each of these demographics need. Sophomores are very different than what seniors need, and offer the career assistance, offer the help, offer the graduation assistance that they need. And so, it's been fun piloting a lot of these things with these groups. We do third week surveys both with our freshmen but also our sophomores, we call them "temperature checks." And it's very telling on what sophomores need versus freshmen and our LEADS and ACES are very responsive in what our students need and what they're doing and going after.

Bailey: Yeah, and I think it allows... originally when we tried the SOAR program, we were kind of splitting cohorts a little bit.

Kirby: Yep.

Bailey: And we saw these students, these ACES who... they're developing themselves. We give them all this responsibility, but sometimes I, I know I forget that they're sophomores, seniors, juniors needing these same things that we're... but kind of got too much to remember, "OK, now I've got my "how to work with freshmen" hat on and then... and so, I think a big step and a big success as we talk about these innovations is separating them so that the SOAR ACES or now the LEADS can wear the sophomore/upperclassmen hat the whole time and then the ACES can wear their freshmen hats and really do the work and not have to, "Well, this isn't working." Well, yeah, because you're treating them like you did last year and they don't need that. Or things like that...

Kirby: Yeah.

Wyatt: Well, I was listening to you talk about this generation that's coming in as freshmen, and everything you've said about them describes me. So, I'm not sure I buy this generation stereotype.

Kirby: Sure.

Wyatt: Because I think that the whole society shifts and I think that it just might be more pronounced when it's the younger group that's showing up at college.

Meredith: President, do you need me to be your ACE? Because I'm a year older than you. [Laughter]

Wyatt: You are.

Meredith: And I can take you to get a Diet Coke if you want. [All laugh] In fact, if you guys want an expert to come in and chat about Diet Coke, I'm...

Wyatt: You're there.

Meredith: I'm you're guy.

Kirby: OK, President, I'd take him up on that.

Wyatt: If I have to stand in line and listen to ten bullet points from somebody about everything and I'm only really interested in one of them, I think we're all kind of in the same boat.

Kirby: Sure.

Wyatt: We all want things to be relevant. We all want people to think that we're interested in that person rather than what I'm interested in telling you. This just seems like this is really smart.

Kirby: Yeah, and I agree with you. I think by and large that the customer service side and just treating people with respect and developing that culture of that concierge type service, I think that applies to all of us.

Wyatt: In some ways it's more inefficient, and in some ways it's more efficient. Because you spend time telling me ten things because... let's assume that I'm a new employee and you give me the list of 10 or 20 things. I'm not going to hear any of them because you're giving me 20. But if you give me the things that I'm most interested in or most need today and then give me the things that I need next week then it works more efficiently for me and for the person delivering it I would think.

Kirby: Yeah. And it's fun. When the ACES program was created, I remember as we headed into spring semester, a lot of the ACES toward the end of spring semester would come up and be like, "Kirby, I think I'm failing as an ACE. My student won't reach out to me anymore or won't come in for help." And I give them two thumbs up and say, "You've done your job." [All laugh] That's the success.

Meredith: Fly little bird, fly.

Kirby: That's exactly right. If the student is still coming in at the end of spring semester and needs everything done for them, it means you haven't done your job. And so, the ACES, one of the things we do, and I often talk with parents about this, they'll say, "Well, it sounds like a lot of hand holding." And I'll say, "It is upfront. It's not that the ACE does everything for them the entire time." An example: first time a student comes in and says, "Hey, where's the financial aid office?" The ACE will say, "Yeah, let me walk you down there. What do you need? What are you doing?" And the ACE will talk with them a little bit. The second the student comes in, "Hey, I need help with the financial aid office." OK cool, let me coach you a little bit on what conversation you're going to have, who you're going to ask for. I'll be there in the back, but this is you now. And then the third time, that student doesn't show up to the Nest. So, so much of it is the ACES are great at coaching them along the way that by the end of spring semester, we're there if the students need us, but our goal is that the students don't need us.

Bailey: Yeah.

Kirby: It's a weird model to say it that way, that our goal is to make sure students don't come back to us.

Bailey: Yeah.

Kirby: That we've trained them enough that they feel comfortable on their own and that our ACES, by the end of spring semester, feel like a proud parent, if you will, that these students are now on their own, they're out flying, they're out doing their own thing and they're ready to transition to the SOAR program which will take them to the next level. And it's fun seeing these students come in at the end of spring semester just thanking their ACE. The amount of gratitude...

Bailey: Yeah.

Kirby: The little gifts, little trinkets, little things saying, "Thank you. I now have confidence; I now have the abilities. Thank you for believing in me and being there for me when I needed you most."

Wyatt: You know, when I was a college student forever ago, not quite as long ago as Steve... [Laughs]

Meredith: Yeah, yeah. [Both laugh]

Wyatt: I actually think I had some ACES, but they were informally created, just friends that were older than me. So, the program that you've got is making sure that everybody has somebody.

Kirby: Yeah.

Bailey: Yeah.

Wyatt: Because if we have a big brother or a big sister or a friend or a neighbor or somebody in a club that looks out for us, this just makes it so that everybody has somebody and then they're better trained to know all of the answers. Ryan, what is your number one takeaway from being from start to finish as a student and graduate student and now employee in this program? Full-time employee? What's your number one takeaway for people that want to create something different?

Bailey: Yeah, I think if I could just go back, a lot of people look for that silver bullet and I think we get contacted by schools, and even in the past, other programs on campus have seen the good work and said, "What are you doing? Give us your training manual. Give us that silver bullet. And especially as a younger professional, as I was newly graduated my first year, I was like "Yeah, it is in the training. It is in what we say and the analogies we use." And Eric and Jarred, Dr. Tippets, have been really good in helping me understand that it's about having the right people and creating that right culture. And culture is created in a lot of ways, you could have a whole other podcast or five about that. But making sure that I'm that ACE of the ACES constantly. That it's not just in word but in deed and in making sure that the people that we bring in do fit that concierge model, that "want to help" model that we talked about earlier. And so, if I felt like I needed to do this in a different part of my life on a different campus if I ever moved on or whatever, that's where I would definitely start. Obviously you need funding and obviously you need support, but if you try to run before you're ready, I think this will fail. And you know, there's some things that we have an advantage of at SUU. Our campus is smaller so we can assign an ACE to every first year student, that's something that we are able to do. but it's not just that. It's making sure that you're set up to succeed and part of that culture is that we will try and fail miserably sometimes, but we won't let that define us. We'll keep going and pushing through.

Wyatt: This is one of the things that I've heard is you had all of the... Eric, when you helped create this or led the creation of this several years ago, you had all of the research done, you understood what everybody else was doing, you knew what the best practices were, and you knew that for whatever reason, that wasn't working perfectly here. So, you were willing to say, "I'm willing to use the basis of knowledge that I've gained from everybody else's experiences, but I'm going to try to see if I can find something that's uniquely suited to the students here and I'm willing to take a risk to do something that's very different." So, we abandoned a bunch of programs, started this one. It just seems like it starts with a basis of a lot of study, both of best practices but then of our own individual needs, and then just creating something out of scratch... from scratch.

Kirby: I think you're spot on. It's something that I try to teach my team that data driven decisions are very important, but there also comes a time where you've just got to trust your gut. And that sometimes, there may not be data necessarily supporting what you're trying to do, but if you feel that there's nothing directly contrary or flying in the face, let's give it a whirl. And it may not work, but let's give it a whirl. So, sometimes you just gotta go for it and try it and learn from it and it wasn't going to sink the ship, but... yeah.

Wyatt: Well, and you needed a support structure of your supervisor who was willing to let you fail.

Kirby: Absolutely.

Wyatt: So, you had to have some confidence to know that if this doesn't work, and the pieces that didn't work... the ACES program today is very different from what it was when you started.

Kirby: Oh, hands down. Yep.

Wyatt: It's not hardly comparable, is it?

Kirby: No.

Bailey: No.

Wyatt: So, you had to have somebody that was willing to trust you and give you a little bit of latitude to succeed and fail and struggle and work through it. And now, five, six years later, it's flourishing and you're looking at, "How can we... ?" You're kind of new into the LEADS, the second step which is for the upper class students.

Kirby: Yep.

Wyatt: And there's a lot to be learned there.

Kirby: There is. Every year, it's a different group of students that require different things. And I think you bring up a good point that this would not have worked if Dr. Tippets had a very short leash on me.

Wyatt: Mhmm.

Kirby: And if President's Cabinet wasn't willing to help back or fund more ACES in the creation and believing in the program and through the shark tank initiatives and being willing to fund it. And so, you're absolutely right. Ideas that aren't funded, ideas that don't have support, it can be really, really tough to get going and to find success with.

Wyatt: Fantastic. Well, congratulations for a terrific program. We look forward to seeing more come of it. And we're a big university and this is a big world, and just watching innovation happen and seeing how we can apply it in other areas is half of the fun actually.

Bailey: Well, and big thanks to you, President Wyatt. Not trying to brag on him or put him on the spot, but part of the success, even when we were kind of nickel and diming money to have more ACES and build, has been your support and even just stopping by the Nest and chatting with the ACES, it makes their day, it makes them eager to work hard, and those days are fun to see. "President Wyatt stopped by and said we're doing a great job or just chatted about life." And the support that you and the President's Cabinet and obviously Dr. Tippets and Dr. Kirby, Eric, it's made a really good morale and I think that's what's exciting to be an ACE or to be a LEAD is that it's not just a job, it's not just helping, but you know you have the support of the campus community, which is really awesome.

Wyatt: Well, and they know they're doing something important.

Bailey: Yeah.

Wyatt: That helps motivate them, too.

Kirby: Yeah, but thank you.

Bailey: Yeah, that support is not lost on us I hope you know.

Kirby: Yeah.

Meredith: You've been listening to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott L Wyatt, who is one year younger than I am. [Laughter] And is also the president of Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah. We've had as our guests today Ryan Bailey and Eric Kirby who are exemplary staff members here who lead our peer mentoring ACES program that's been very successful for us. Thanks Eric, thanks Ryan for joining us. And thank you, our devoted listeners, for tuning in. We'll be back again with another podcast soon. Bye bye.