Today on Teaching & Learning Champions, we’re joined by Estrella Barrera, Associate Dean, Health Sciences & Grant Potts, Department Chair, Department of Philosophy, Religion, and Humanities. We’re talking about the importance and impact of Faculty Mentors on Guided Pathways.

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Episode Transcript

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[Matthew Evins:] Welcome to another episode of Teaching and Learning Champions. I’m Matt Evins, Director of Instructional Technology and Digital Resources in the Teaching and Learning Excellence Division at ACC. Today, I’m joined by Estrella Barrera, Associate Dean of Health Sciences and Grant Potts, Department Chair for the Department of Philosophy, Religion and Humanities. As we talk about the impact of faculty mentors on Guided Pathways. Thank you for joining me today.

[Estrella Barrera:] Thank you for having us.

[Grant Potts:] Thank you.

[Matthew Evins:] Let’s start off by talking about- a little bit about the definition of “faculty mentors”. What are faculty mentors and how does the college define and utilize faculty mentors?

[Grant Potts:] Faculty mentors are a role that is increasingly important when they get to college. What they are, are people, faculty, who have a specific role in mentoring, in helping students through their academic pathway, with a particular focus on helping make sure students persist and bringing those students to completion. And helping make, what I often refer to as a “good handoff” for that student. Meaning, not only do we get them to graduate or transfer, but we make sure that they do that so that they are set up with success once they get there, to their transfer institution or they’re set up with success when they graduate, meaning they’re moving into a career trajectory that works for them. Right now, we have seven faculty mentors and they provide- and these are adjunct faculty who are instructional associates and have dedicated 20 hours a week to doing this mentoring work. They carry a case load of about 300 students each, so they have about 300 students that are students who have gotten to at least 30 credit hours, but have not gotten quite to that level of completion yet. We define it as 30 to 44 credit hours. And they monitor those students, they engage with them, they help make sure that those students don’t fall off the track as, this is a particular area where we see a lot of students exiting, without any evidence that they’re exiting to go somewhere else. And so, we want to make sure that there’s a faculty there to help create relationships with the students. Help guide them and help them make that transition. So, they can assist with any number of things. Looking at what’s going on with their academic path, making sure that they’re making connections with their programs and departments; making sure, as they’re thinking about transfer because a lot of the faculty mentors right now are working in transfer programs, that they’re set up for the transfer institution that they’re looking at. Exploring other options so that they can make sure that they are successful in that transfer. And if that doesn’t work out, helping students with things like talking to the department chairs or other faculty about substitutions, about making sure that they get the resources they need to complete; really forming a relationship. They can also help get letters of recommendation, all those things that are kind of the softer, wider realm of faculty work, beyond the classroom. I mean, all of us who are faculty, to some degree, this is part of what we have discovered, you know, all of us to some degree work as mentors to our students. That would be an informal conversation happening after class, where we just connect with a student, we hear about where they’re, you know, wanting to transfer. We know something about that institution and we say, “Hey, you might want to check out this professor” and even go talk to him. Those kinds of little moments with students, are really, really vital to their success. So, what we’ve tried to do is to create a cohort of faculty who really take that on as an intentional part of their job and a more robust part of their job. Talking to the mentors, you know, sometimes when they work with students, you know, they sat down, had a fairly quick conversation and really that student just needed a faculty member to have a connection with, within their programs, within their area of study, to know, you know, they’re like, “Great. I know you’re here. I know I’ve got an ally if I need it.” Other times, you know, I talk to- we’ve talked to each of our faculty mentors, since their work last semester, and one of them told us about, you know, basically talking to a student, realizing that we didn’t understand what that student needed for their transfer path. I think it was in a science or engineering field to A&M, and spent a good four hours just figuring out how does the- our institution get that information- how does the student get that information? So that they understood what they needed to go there with success. I think that’s kind of how I would summarize it. What would you say, Estrella?

[Estrella Barrera:] No, I would definitely agree with all of that, Grant. And I’d like to add, you know, how did you even get here with faculty mentors, right? This really came out of the work with Guided Pathways. And where we started with Guided Pathways three years, four years ago, now?

[Matthew Evins:] However many years ago.

[Estrella Barrera:] Yeah, however many years ago, this was really one of the elements that kind of came out of, “All right, so we’re rolling out Guided Pathways,” and along our work with that, we recognized that faculty mentoring was going to be a key role in how we guide the student through completion or transfer. And so, that’s really a good model to frame this and for it, you know, our audience being faculty, that they recognize, you know, how we got here and this really came out of the work that we’re doing with Guided Pathways.

[Matthew Evins:] So what the, I guess, distinction between faculty mentors and advisors?

[Estrella Barrera:] The faculty mentors are on the instruction side. The advisors are student affairs. And when we launched this, this work, Grant and I two or three- two years ago, we recognized- and we all recognized there’s been a huge divide between faculty and advisors and you know, “You did this, you didn’t do this.” And so, really we’ve been very intentional about, you know what? Let’s break this barrier, the silos, and let’s create this bridge, right? There’s an opportunity for us to better support the student and we all have a key role in this student’s life. And the work that Student Affairs has done, and the way they have revamped their whole advising system into a more case management model, has been made an opportunity again for now the faculty mentors to join and come together and just really collaborate, creating an environment of collaboration. And you know, the advisor is the first person the student sees when they come to ACC. And they play a critical role in navigating the student to the, now, the faculty mentor. So, there is no, “Okay, the advisor is done, here faculty mentor, take the student.” No, it’s this collaborative relationship and culture that we really have been focusing on creating. And you know, there’s still a lot of work to be done, but we definitely have seen the value in the case management model, hence that with faculty mentors, we’re following what the Student Affairs has done with their case management model, and that’s the way our mentors are under- why they’re assigned 300 students and they’re managing them, along their path.

[Grant Potts:] Yeah, and I think sometimes, you know, when we go on this journey into really, this Pathways model that we’ve decided to embrace institutionally, you know, there’s a level at which it does call for us to rethink how we think about how we organize what we do. And I think part of what the Pathways model does is it says, “Organize what you do around the path that the student is traveling along and the support they need to be successful in that path.” And I think sometimes people get caught up, kind of in that path, right? But if you actually look at the literature on the Pathways model, it’s much more about the support service around the student and reorganizing the institution around that support service. And again, in the literature, a lot of what they talk about is the siloing of our institutions. And what that means is that we’ve classically organized around, “All right, so this is advising, you have these roles. And in an advisor, you’re a financial aid advisor, and you’re, you know, you have this role, this role. You’re faculty, you instruct, you do this.” And making sure that everyone has their own roles around the institutional structure and demarcating that. And if you’re- if this is not your role, you put it over to that other person. What Pathways calls us to do is to think differently. How do we work together as a team to support the student? That does mean that there’s going to be times where there’s a blurring of roles and this is confusing and muddy. And, in some ways, this purpose-

[Estrella Barrera:] Yeah.

[Grant Potts:] You know, we just had a big meet up between the completion counselors, the success coaches, and the faculty mentors on Friday. We spent about three hours just having them talk to each other about what they’re doing and how their roles fit together, understanding what the different roles are. And, you know, part of what we noted was, there’s a lot of overlap. There’s a lot of overlapping, even in the advising side, between these success coaches and the completion counselors. Even though they have some definition that distinguishes what students they’re assigned. And there are important differences. So, for example, you know, one thing that emerged in the conversation that struck me was, you know, if a student is really confronting a holistic set of life issues, of issues that might require the intervention of counseling services, you know, the mentor is someone who they might come to, who can identify that and they might be able to refer to some services. But that might be a point where the mentor needs to say to, you know, to the student, connect that student to the completion counselor, because they have the counseling training, they have the expertise to really assess more of what’s going on with that student. Whereas the mentor, because they’re faculty, because they’re really embedded in instruction and, more importantly, they’re embedded in the disciplines and the way academic work is done, are able to really help the student think about their academic path, understand their academic path, understand how they are faced with the instructional side, in a way that’s going to benefit them and lead them to success. And really understand, kind of, where that path goes. And where that goes, not only within ACC, but beyond ACC. We want to bring students to completion. What we have to do is think about where- what is it they want. And you know, they often, especially on the transfer side, which is where we have our mentoring primarily happening right now, students come with an idea that they want to get an education because they want to have a better life.

[laughter] Like, that’s the base line, but they don’t necessarily have a strong definition except for maybe some sense of some interest. Like, “Maybe I’m interested in psychology. I don’t like the way people think.” Mentors are more deeply embedded in that, so they can say, “No, this is, this is who you need to talk to, in the department, to help you understand what that discipline is about and whether that is what you want

[inaudible]. And these are the other areas to explore.” Or, if you’re further along and really- like “This is, these are the next few steps you need to take. And then, these are steps that will be particularly important if you’re trying to set yourself up for transfer to UT or if you’re- and won’t jeopardize your transfer to Texas State if you don’t get into UT.” So, those are the- that’s the expertise they can bring as faculty. But there’s also just an important part, that we learned in talking to students. We did a focus group, well, we did three focus groups with students, that simply forming a relationship.

[Estrella Barrera:] Mm hmm.

[Grant Potts:] With a faculty member, with all those students we talked to.

[Estrella Barrera:] Yep.

[Grant Potts:] Was a centerpiece to their sense that they could make it through their education.

[Estrella Barrera:] Yeah. That came through, over and over, is that relationship. And, it’s UT or Point Grand about, the faculty mentor really being that key resource and establishing the relationship with a student and then being aware of all the other resources available. You know, the mentor’s not the expert and all those other resources, but they’re really are the connection for the student to pick up the phone and say, “Hey, you know, I’ve got the student here, I’m going to send them over your way,” or even walking the student over to financial aid or to the food pantry or whatever other issue might be happening in the student, student’s life. And that’s really where we see students saying about faculty mentoring. And what the faculty mentors are excited about, that they can connect that student, and establish that relationship. Because they- the other value of the faculty mentor is that there’s not a time restraint on how much time they can spend with the students. You may knock on their door, or show up at whatever campus they’re at, and the mentor may spend 45 minutes to an hour with them. And again, it’s those relationships and that trust, that those two people are building, and hopefully that that student recognizes that I have an issue, right? I’ve got that relationship with my mentor and get there before they decide to exit out.

[Matthew Evins:] What has the feedback been from faculty, on the impact that they’ve had on student success through being a faculty mentor?

[Estrella Barrera:] A few of the things that I have heard, I think first of all, they’re still getting their feet wet and getting settled in, into their roles. But, in the summertime, it was the- David’s group.

[Grant Potts:] Yeah, the science and engineering.

[Estrella Barrera:] The science and engineering, they really were the first two mentors that started their work. And, it was- for them it was really just kind of sorting through these hundreds of students and finding, “Where are you? What do you need? Do you know where you’re going?” And it’s just kind of beginning to put, kind of like what we’d see, a number to a face and to connecting to that student. And identifying what is it they really want to do? And it’s kind of beginning to establish what the needs of that division are. What are the resources that the mentor- as a mentor, what do I really need to have access to very quickly, and so, some of that I think is still kind of going on.

[Matthew Evins:] Yeah.

[Estrella Barrera:] Which was the feedback that we’ve heard from some of the mentors. But they’re really are getting those, a sense of the number of students that really need guidance and the number of students that have really kind of been lost out here at ACC.

[Grant Potts:] And I think that also brings up what we’ve seen, especially with that example of the science, engineering and math majors. So, before they got their case load, what the science, engineering and math mentors did was they worked with their dean, on really just doing an audit of all the students with excessive credits and trying to contact those students and figure out what’s going on, go through their record and really say, you know, “What’s going on?” And it’s highly varied. But part of what they- and there were some places where a student just needed one class, and sometimes it was a class that could like- there was a substitution that could be done with the department chair and no one had, you know, ever just made that connection for them. Or they were hanging out because they didn’t know where to go, because they didn’t know what the next step was; they were scared of graduating, because graduating means

[inaudible] and so I think helping getting them there. So, those are the kinds of- but a lot what they also began to do was to say, “Hey, we’re noticing this pattern, in this program, with students where they’re falling off the map.” So, I can take that information back to the department or there’s a particular problem in our institutional way of kind of just arranging ourselves around them, that we’re counting this class. You know, it could be that this class is coded in a way that it doesn’t need to be. And again, it may require the department to go to

[inaudible] and programs and make that change. So, part of what the mentors are doing, and I know there’s a certain cheesiness to this, but like, you know, there’s a level at which they’re mentoring the students, but we’ve also conceptualized it and we can see them talking about this, that they’re also mentoring the programs. They’re mentoring the larger institution on how to serve these students better. They’re mentoring the academic side, the instructional side, of what we’re doing about what’s going on in advising. They’re mentoring in student affairs and advising on what’s going on in the instructional side. They’re providing that glue between all these different groups that are working around the student. They student is the center here. And the student’s pathway is the center, to help make sure that those students are going through the path successfully. I mean, a lot of times we can ask ourselves, you know, what does this student need to do? What guidance do we need to provide this student to make sure that they do the right thing to get where they need to go. But I think an important part of the Pathway model too, is it’s a model that says, “We’re constantly able to reform, we’re constantly asking what’s going on with our students and what do we need to do to serve the students better on that pathway.” And I think that we’ve heard that there’s a way that they provide an important glue, in that, in helping provide that feedback to the deans, back to the department chairs. I think that’s one of the places we can more formally work on intentional, create an intentional structures around that. And that’s part of what, you know, I think we’ll see going forward in the future.

[Estrella Barrera:] Mm hmm. Yeah, I mean, we’re six- not even six months into it really.

[Grant Potts:] Yeah.

[Estrella Barrera:] You and I have been working on it for a couple years, but the actual start of the mentors started in summer, so-

[Grant Potts:] Right.

[Estrella Barrera:] And the last mentor just came on, in December or early January, right?

[Grant Potts:] Early January.

[Estrella Barrera:] Early January. So, there’s still a lot of learning happening and know- not knowing what I don’t know and developing their cohesiveness as a group and I mean, so you know, we still have some work to do around that, in supporting the mentors and developing the mentors and integrating them into their divisions and getting them comfortable in their roles.

[Grant Potts:] And I think about it, it’s a curious role. Because like, really what we’ve identified is, again, what is a, really an informal part of faculty work, that all faculty may do, right? But which we can see, from the literature and from talking to students in the focus groups, is essential to student success. Which is being that connection, that friend, that advocate for the student. That’s gold. And what we don’t want is for these formal faculty mentors to take that role, at the expense of the role all faculty take. So, there’s a level which, you know, we’re really trying to say, “Let’s give you the resources to make this a really intentional part of your job. Focus on a group of students that really need that help, really need that connection, and then use that to strengthen the mentoring that comes from faculty outside of those formal faculty mentors all the time.

[Matthew Evins:] I know you’d mentioned that the concept of mentors really kicked off over the summer and you’re- you know, even just recently still onboarding additional mentors. But you’d mentioned focus groups of students. What other feedback have you gotten from students about the idea of faculty mentoring?

[Estrella Barrera:] I’m trying to remember, remember what we’ve done. We’ve had feedback- From- aside from David’s group-

[Grant Potts:] Yeah, we got some feedback there, but you know, I mean the fact is, we haven’t gotten into a formal analysis with the students yet of how they’re experiencing that. Part of what we- part of- so, part of what is also interesting about the faculty mentors is they work for their deans. Right? And so, while we have this cohort of mentors, that are across three divisions right now: science, engineering and math; business studies; and liberal arts. Liberal arts work- they report of the Social and Behavioral Science dean, but they work with both deans in liberal arts. And so, in terms of really, kind of assessing-

[Estrella Barrera:] Yeah.

[Grant Potts:] What’s going on, that’s something that’s happening at the dean level. And we haven’t gotten a sense that there’s been a strong, kind of, engagement yet to see that. And like I said, part of what we’re doing is just getting them rolling. We got them set up last semester, and it- you know, we’re introducing new structures. Like, we had to- they had to create a whole new category in our database, around the student record so that the student could have direct identification of their mentor when they log into Student Services.

[Estrella Barrera:] Yeah.

[Grant Potts:] So that, like, that took a couple weeks to get set up correctly and delayed the case loads getting to that. So, like many things at ACC, you have a good idea and you get it and then you get into it and you realize, “We have so many systems talking to each other at once,” but you’ve got to adjust and modulate it. Yeah, that’s true. We should go back and talk to the students. I mean, we can survey them and we should talk to the students and see what their experience is after those mentoring sessions.

[Estrella Barrera:] And that is something we had talked about early on is like, how are we going to measure the success of this? So, I would say after the spring semester, all of them would have had definitely a lot more work under their belt, and it would be a good opportunity, say maybe around summertime, to kind of look at, okay, what did they really- what was the feedback they were getting from the students this spring semester.

[Grant Potts:] Yeah, because we have an ability to do a kind of quantitative measure. Like, we know who they were assigned to, we can look at those students, compare them generally to students with similar traits and say, “Hey, did this seem to- did this push them? Do we see more persistence? Do we see more completion?” Those being the two real parts of the pathway that we’re really focusing mentors around. But, that’s different than talking to students, and getting a sense from them. We have a good sense of what students have experienced, in terms of this kind of mentoring role that’s happened informally, but we’ll need to get back in there and see what happens with the formal mentoring.

[Estrella Barrera:] Mm hmm.

[Matthew Evins:] Are there other projects or initiatives within the concept of faculty mentors that would be beneficial for faculty and staff to know as it relates to Guided Pathways? Either things that are happening now or things you have planned for the future?

[Grant Potts:] I mean, I think the one thing I would say that comes out of this for me, is the importance for our students, that we form good relationships with Student Affairs. And understand what’s going on in Student Affairs. So, yeah, I mean there is a level at which we- there’s a number of initiatives at Student Affairs. They have, in many ways, completely- like sometimes I think, on the instructional side, on the faculty side, we’re like, “Oh, well we have initiative fatigue; we’re overwhelmed, there’s so much going on.” And there’s a reality to that. I mean, I think that there’s- we need to probably, in some ways, be more focused on kind of making sure that we’re doing things very intentionally around what our goals are with our students. But, it’s nothing like what Student Affairs has undergone in the last three or four years with Pathways. They seem to have completely restructured how they approach things, and I think in a good way. And I think it’s been hard for them, but I also think talking to people in student affairs, they report real changes, beneficial changes in the way that they support students. So, yeah, knowing how

[inaudible] study advising works. The advisors, over in Student Affairs, are working with a case load of students. That when I’m talking to a student, I can look up in their record who their advisor is and that may- and although they can still go and talk to any advisor, they do have a touchpoint and I, as a faculty member, have a touchpoint I can talk to. Understanding that there is these initiatives like the completion counselors and the success coaches which are two types of Student Affairs counselors and advisors who work with students toward the end of their career, to help- yes, we do see that. Like, a lot of students make it through the first 30- you know, we can’t talk in terms of years, because our students are all over- through their first year, the first 30 credit hours. And they’re going along and then, at some point, for some reason, in that second half, they fall off the map. And where we can track them, it doesn’t seem like they’re going to other institutions. It just seems like they’re stopping out. And it’s important to understand, I mean I think some of us might say, “Oh, well they just- they just couldn’t cut it; they weren’t doing well academically.” But again, that’s not the evidence. The evidence is that we’re losing students who are doing well academically. And there’s a variety of factors contributing to that. So, I think, understanding where the support is for students, both in student affairs and- or more broadly, so we can connect them to that support, I think is probably what’s most important for faculty to learn and be aware of.

[Estrella Barrera:] Mm hmm. You know, I think also the use of our data, real time data. You know, I’m optimistic that it’s going to give us the tool to better intervene with a student in more real time. And not have to wait for a year later to capture the data and think, “Oh.” So, I’m excited about that. And the integration of how we’re using the data with Student Affairs and then with our faculty mentors and early alerts and being a little more proactive with our students and not as reactive as we’ve been in the past is some of the positive things I see us doing, going forward.

[Grant Potts:] Let me give you one good example of that. And this is an example that is in my work as department chair that I get out of doing this work with the faculty mentors. Now, I became very aware of how useful Blackboard grade data is, for advisors. Not just to see how students are doing academically, but to as a signal we can know that a student’s falling off the map and may need just someone from the institution to reach out and say, “Hey, we’re here.” You know, not “Oh, looks like something’s going on,” but “Hey, we’re here” so that that student can come connect with us, and we can connect them to the resources that may be- you know, just because something happened, they lost their job or any number of-

[Estrella Barrera:] Their car broke down.

[Grant Potts:] You know, and if they’re cooking along and they’re grades are doing fine in Blackboard through the semester, and then across their classes they stop, you know, they stop doing- getting their grades in, each individual faculty may not recognize that, but the system recognizes that and can say, “Hey, something’s going on with this student. Alert the advisor.” The advisor can reach out and the student. That only works if faculty are putting their grades in Blackboard, right? And when I talked to my department about that, I think part of what I realized talking to them is faculty may or may not keep grades in Blackboard. And faculty who don’t, a lot of times, they just don’t why it’s really important, because they’re not aware that there’s whole ecology of support that relies on that information. And so, knowing our role, in generating that real time data, just by doing something as simple as keeping your gradebook in Blackboard, even if you don’t use Blackboard for anything else except posting your syllabus, can be vital to helping make sure our students are successful.

[Matthew Evins:] Great. Well, last question I have, that’s not necessarily related to faculty mentors is, is there anything that’s given you a Riverbat pride this week?

[Grant Potts:] What’s given me- well, I mean, it’s the beginning of the week, so we can we answer for last week?

[Estrella Barrera:] Yeah. I say, it’s Monday.

[Matthew Evins:] Go for it. Beginning of the month; you can even do for the month.

[Grant Potts:] You know I- I have to say that meeting we had on Friday-

[Estrella Barrera:] Yeah.

[Grant Potts:] I was talking to Amber who is one of the executive deans who helped organize that. And we were talking about what we were seeing. And I said, to her, “You know, every educational institution I’ve ever worked at, and I’ve worked at a number, this is the place where, no matter what people, like whatever is in people’s head, whatever they’re pushing for, whatever the highest percentage of people that I work with, who are here because they really care about the students.” And I was just reminded of that, watching that. And so, that’s what gave- gives me pride. And it gives me pride every day is that I do work in an institution where I can say the institution cares, but institutions don’t care. The people in the institution, on the whole,

[laughter] care, on a real deep way and they bring it. They bring it to their work every day.

[Estrella Barrera:] Mm hmm. I- yeah, I was thinking the same thing. You and I have been working too long together, because I was thinking kind of similar things in that it inspires me to come into a space where there’s people committed to making a difference in people’s lives. And willing to do the hard work, and willing to own what’s working and not working, and willing to give up what they’ve been doing for years because there’s evidence to prove, to show, “Look, there’s a better way to do this.” And to me, that’s inspiring and I agree with Grant, there’s so many great people here that want to do this for the student and come to work because they want to help a student. And that’s inspiring.

[Matthew Evins:] Great. Well, thank you again, both of you for joining me today. And that wraps up another episode of Teaching and Learning Champions. Don’t forget that you view blog posts for each episode on the TL website. I also encourage you to subscribe to the ACC District podcasts on any of your preferred podcast apps or listen to individual episodes on the TL website. Thank you for tuning in and we’ll chat next time on TLC at ACC.

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