Kansas State University took its first steps toward becoming a strengths-based campus when Mike Finnegan, Assistant Professor in the Staley School of Leadership Studies, piloted strengths in a 40-student section of an Introduction to Leadership Concepts course. Strengths created a "wonderful learning environment," Mike says. "Students wanted to know more about their strengths. But beyond the Signature Themes report, we didn't really know what else to do."
Mike asked the Gallup StrengthsQuest team to visit K-State to help the leadership studies faculty learn more about applying strengths in the classroom, and he extended an invitation to faculty and staff from other areas. He discovered that there were other "strengths champions" on campus -- in Housing and Dining, in Student Life and among the faculty, for example -- who were using strengths to create an engaging learning environment.
The next year, the leadership studies faculty rolled out strengths to 900 students in their classes and then assessed its effectiveness at the end of the semester. "Students made comments [like] 'I never saw myself as a leader. But now that I've identified my strengths, I can see that as long as I'm leveraging my strengths in a productive environment and a productive way, I can lead through my strengths,'" Mike says.
Once the leadership studies faculty members saw the impact that strengths was having for their students, they wanted to make the program available to all students. That's when Rich Mistler -- a K-State alumnus and a strengths enthusiast at his business and with his family -- stepped forward with a gift that enabled K-State to make StrengthsQuest available to all incoming freshman starting with the fall semester of 2012.
Four years later, strengths permeate the K-State campus. The university invites all first-semester, transfer and international students to take the CliftonStrengths assessment before they arrive on campus. CliftonStrengths is integrated into the student learning portal, so a student's Top 5 themes are available to them throughout their college career. Strengths are woven into the University Experience course, which helps students transition to academics and college life. More than 200 faculty and staff have attended formal training and now are part of the Strengths Champions network. Each fall, K-State President Kirk Schulz addresses the freshmen leadership students and talks about how his strengths played out in his career path.
Getting Students Involved
It doesn't take students long to see that strengths have a presence at K-State -- which then encourages them to have a conversation about their strengths with others on campus. Strengths "creates a common language for students," says Jessica Arnold, assistant coordinator in the Office of New Student Services and strengths program coordinator. "They start to learn more about it once they get here; then they start really applying it."
One way that students have applied strengths has been through Strengths Advocates, a registered student organization that started in spring 2012. "K-State [believes] strongly that to be successful, things need to be student driven," says Kristen Brunkow, a former K-State student and one of the group's founding members and leaders.
Strengths Advocates were crucial in spreading the strengths message across campus. "To be successful, [we knew strengths] would need to be in career and employment," Kristen says. "We'd need to move it to Greek life, to resident living, to career and employment services." Strengths Advocates conducted education sessions for their peers and coordinated a Strengths Week to promote strengths awareness across campus.
One memorable activity that the Strengths Advocates sponsored was a student body officer debate that took place in February 2013. "There's only one student body [president and vice president] debate, and so we added in a strengths debate," Kristen says. "It changed the atmosphere to be a very positive environment."
K-State is still in the process of measuring the impact of strengths on student retention, engagement and overall well-being. But for Kristen, the program has a clear connection with retention and engagement: "It proves to a freshman that [K-State] is vested in who you are as a person, and not just what major you're going to choose or what club you're going to be in," Kristen says. "It was amazing to see some of the students -- they just lit up when they realized what they were good at."
"And strengths has changed our students' well-being on campus. Students start to see their peers more from an asset-based, as opposed to a deficit-based, perspective," Mike says. "If you and I are in a group project or if we're in the residence halls, maybe we don't necessarily initially get along. But in the back of my mind, I know that you've got five strengths, and so maybe it's up to me to ask you about your strengths and how you can contribute to our learning community, to our group project. And that just increases overall engagement."
Lessons Learned From a Strengths-Based University
What advice would you give to campus leaders who are starting a strengths program at their school or campus?
Mike Finnegan, Ph.D.: "Don't do it alone. Be proactive and ask others who are familiar with strengths what [they've done to integrate strengths] into the work they do. Engage students in each and every step of the process. And don't control it, don't try to own it -- let it be bigger than any one person or any one office."
Jessica Arnold: "Create excitement around [strengths] right as students are stepping on campus for the first time. But don't let up on that excitement. Doing something to keep the momentum alive throughout the entire year is really important. It's easy to take the assessment and then say, 'OK, these are my Top 5 strengths.' But there's the 'What's next?' piece. It's really important to figure out what's next."
Kristen Brunkow: "Find student champions. Find the student champions who can pioneer and push and really be the voice [for strengths]. Because [when a student says], 'I want to see this happen, this matters to me and my friends and we want this to be a part of our academic program' -- it's powerful."
Please watch this video where K-State students discuss their strengths.