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Growing Strengths Organically at the University of Colorado

Growing Strengths Organically at the University of Colorado

What do engaged students look like? And what are the ripple effects of engagement in those students' lives and the lives around them?

These are the questions that Cori Shaff, assistant director of outreach and career counseling at the University of Colorado Boulder (CU-Boulder), addresses by using Gallup's model of strengths to build student engagement and well-being. She wants students to be engaged community members not only on campus, but also in their lives -- whether they're in the classroom or with their friends, or are serving as student leaders or as employees. Her vision is "for students to feel connected to others and understand what they do best so they can live full and authentic lives."

Recently, Gallup offered a Regional Strengths Education Event at CU-Boulder for about 50 educational leaders from the Colorado region. The half-day event -- presented by Tom Matson, Gallup's senior director of executive leadership -- challenged educators to lead through times of change and build the best campuses and workplaces by facilitating essential daily conversations about strengths, engagement and well-being.

Celebrating the Impact of Strengths

For Cori, the event brought her full circle. She first met Tom seven years ago at CU-Boulder at Gallup's first educator event at the university, and she regards him as a mentor.

"I have so many memories from that day and a half," Cori says of the event she attended in 2009. "I can remember the room, the people -- it's so clear in my mind because it was a turning point. I saw strengths as an opportunity to continue building my outreach work, and I partnered with other staff on campus who were using strengths to look at ways that we could work together."

A student who works for Cori -- who has been involved in the program since she was a first-year student -- also attended the recent event, receiving encouragement to apply what she has learned about strengths to her life after graduation.

The event was also a celebration of the impact of strengths on the campus of UC-Boulder, and it offered Cori and her colleagues an opportunity to reflect on the success of the program.

Vision and Impact

Best-practice campuses have a clear vision of the impact strengths can have on engagement and well-being. They also have actionable goals.

"The key to the vision, ironically, isn't strengths, although it's the glue," Tom says. "The key is a highly educated group of leaders accepting strengths not as the outcome but rather the intervention to improve campus engagement and well-being. Strengths is the 'how,' and our model of well-being is the 'why.'"

Cori wants students to see themselves as community members and engaged participants on campus -- and to have a "cornerstone experience that propels them into having [a] successful life." For students, "strengths is a powerful tool in moving them towards [engagement] because it's an opportunity to discover what they do best, to develop [their talents] -- to learn to grow in them, and then to apply them," Cori says.

Grassroots Growth

Last summer, Cori collaborated with the university's orientation office, which distributed access codes to all incoming students. Now, every year, 6,000 new students will learn their strengths and how to use them productively to improve well-being and engagement. And 1,000 staff and faculty members in the region -- at CU-Boulder and other campuses -- are involved in learning about strengths.

Cori and her team's passion and excitement has led to organic growth of the strengths movement on campus. Students learn about strengths in many different ways inside and outside of the classroom through:

  • career exploration and counseling
  • a thriving residential academic program that serves about half of all new students
  • a first-year writing and rhetoric course, where instructors use strengths as a writing and exploration tool
  • partnerships with engineering, arts and sciences, business and other groups that are using strengths in their field

"Ours has been a grassroots movement," Cori explains. "We certainly have higher-level administrators who are supportive, and the work has spread because of the people who are on the ground -- professionals who work directly with students."

Strengths Champion

Not only does Cori advocate for strengths as a strategy to improve student engagement and well-being, but she also hopes that staff and faculty will feel connected and have a rewarding experience at CU-Boulder.

"I'm really committed to developing our staff and faculty as well, so that they aren't just knowledgeable about [strengths] but that they understand how to use it to coach and develop students and themselves," she says.

This summer, Gallup will offer its Successful Strengths Coaching course at CU-Boulder. Cori sees this as an opportunity to gain more knowledge and understanding of how to support people one-on-one and in groups.

"A coach inspires [by] asking good questions and challenging individuals to make that connection so they can apply it to their lives," she affirms. "I see that in my role when working with students, staff and faculty."

Cori leads with Influencing and Relationship Building strengths and has used them to grow the strengths movement on campus. She integrates her strengths with her role as a supervisor to students and professional staff. And as a Maximizer, she loves to take what's already working and build on it.

"I really look to [people] who are different than me -- to bounce ideas off of [them], to ask for their insight or how they would do [something]," Cori says. She relies on their expertise and engaging in conversation with them to get new ideas or explore new processes.

An advisory group of 15 to 20 staff and faculty members meets monthly to drive strengths forward by establishing goals, sharing updates and having rich and rewarding discussions, Cori says. "That group is phenomenal because they represent different voices and strengths on campus. The people who are on [the advisory group] are excited and committed to strengths -- it's been a great way for us to build the program."

Cori Shaff's Top 5 CliftonStrengths are Empathy, Communication, Maximizer, Woo and Harmony.

Becky McCarville's Top 5 CliftonStrengths are Learner, Achiever, Responsibility, Maximizer and Input.

Learn more about using CliftonStrengths to help yourself and others succeed:

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