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Furman University's Strengths-Based Approach to Education

Furman University's Strengths-Based Approach to Education

by Sarah Kosch

Story Highlights

  • Furman University is a Don Clifton Strengths for Students Award winner
  • Strengths intersect with the desired outcomes of the Furman Advantage
  • COVID-19 has not slowed their plans for strengths development

The Don Clifton Strengths for Students Award recognizes institutions that are doing exceptional work in integrating CliftonStrengths for Students across their districts and campuses. We will be featuring the winners in a series of articles to highlight their accomplishments and share how they are using strengths to help students thrive in school and all areas of their lives.

Furman University's Shucker Center for Leadership Development is the epicenter for a CliftonStrengths for Students initiative. Kim Keefer, director of the center, had an "aha" moment about the potential impact of strengths after listening to a Gallup keynote speaker at a conference in 2010.

Since then, she has become a Gallup-Certified Strengths Coach and course leader. She began creating a network of strengths coaches and champions across campus to build strengths into Furman's culture. She tracks where strengths development intersects with the desired outcomes of the Furman Advantage -- the root of the university's mission.

Clarifying Purpose for Engaged and Thriving Students

The Furman Advantage provides an individualized four-year pathway for each student, guided by a diverse community of mentors, to prepare students for lives of purpose and accelerated career and community impact. It includes strengths development strategies. Students can begin and continue their strengths development journey at different stages during their time at Furman. Strengths touchpoints are intentionally woven into the educational curriculum through academic advising and mentoring programs in their first and second year.

Several academic majors also have Gallup-Certified Strengths coaches to help students better understand their natural talents in the context of their specific major.

"The strengths insights were so beneficial that now the public health major has created a sequence to systematically ensure that the students are strategically interacting with strengths components through their course of study," says Dr. Shaniece Criss, a Gallup-Certified Strengths Coach and assistant professor in Furman's Department of Health Sciences.

Additionally, certified strengths coaches and strengths champions help students further develop and articulate their natural talents through career engagement, team-based academic courses, student leadership experiences, internship and study away programs.

"When we think about people who are thriving in life, they also have clarity of purpose. They have a response for 'Why am I here?'" says Keefer. "CliftonStrengths for Students is a tremendous tool for moving the needle on reflection of who you are, what you do best and what gifts you have to offer the world."

Strengths development strategies at Furman enhance students' abilities to make involvement, major, internship, and career track decisions, which continues to lead them toward the discovery of their calling and purpose. Strengths drives engagement. Engagement leads to thriving. Thriving leads to clarification of purpose.

"Greater clarity of purpose and a deeper understanding of self leads to a better first match after Furman," says Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost at Furman Ken Peterson. "The goal is for our students to reflect on what they are working toward and how to get there with the help of the Furman community."

Keefer adds, "Our team helps them sharpen their focus and their aim in life because, with a great fit first launched from Furman, they will be able to look back and see how their Furman experience got them there."

Building a Strong Foundation

Thanks to the generosity of a donor -- one who used CliftonStrengths at his company and believed Furman should invest more in strengths -- a Gallup educator came to campus to facilitate a two-day Successful Strengths Coaching course to help launch the start of building a network of strengths coaches and champions to further Keefer's grassroots efforts.

"I was intentional about recruiting participants from a variety of different areas on campus -- career engagement, teaching faculty, academic advisors, community health, vocational reflection, innovation and entrepreneurship, housing, student involvement, internships and research," says Keefer. "We actually certified a student majoring in business, as well. Luz Ruiz [a 2020 graduate] was fantastic with not only program delivery but also developing programs and recruiting students to be strengths ambassadors. We worked together to develop a training program for our student Strengths Ambassadors."

Now a recent alum, Ruiz returned to lead summer programs sponsored by Furman for high school students through the Top Mock and Virtual Academy programs. In the fall, she will be returning as a lead facilitator in a multiday strengths development workshop for Furman's team-based Business Block class for juniors and seniors.

"Our student population is always changing, so we're always going to need a lot of people on the ground continuing strengths development conversations with our students," says Keefer. "To that end, our office intends to grow our mission and our vision through campuswide collaborative partnerships and with continuous care and support of those invested in building our strengths-based culture at Furman."

The core strengths team collaborated to craft a proposal for expanding the structure of CliftonStrengths for Students into its next iteration on campus. They proposed a timeline, documented what they've accomplished over the course of a number of years, and highlighted what could be possible with a slightly different structure.

"CliftonStrengths for Students is a tremendous tool for moving the needle on reflection of who you are, what you do best and what gifts you have to offer the world."

COVID-19 has not slowed Furman's progress. The team transitioned seamlessly to online workshops and online coaching. They are expanding the certified coaching pool with the addition of three more strategically placed coaches; a faculty lead in the economics department and two coaches completing their certification in career engagement. They will also be partnering with different campus offices to train more faculty and staff to be strengths-based advisors through Gallup's CliftonStrengths 201 program. In addition, a portion of the donor gift is being used to offer strengths development as a professional development tool to enhance employee morale and sustain engagement during COVID-19 times.

A Focus on Employee Engagement

One of the biggest areas of the new iteration will be crossing over to work with faculty and staff teams. Furman has a strengths coach in the faculty development center doing faculty-to-faculty professional development, but they intersect because faculty who are interested in using strengths-based development programs in their courses and for project-based teamwork often end up interested in learning more about their own individual strengths.

"Now people are realizing that strengths drive engagement and wellbeing not just for students but also faculty and staff," says Keefer. "When people are excited about their work and engaged in our campus culture, then they as individuals are energized. Students see and feel that energy and we have the opportunity for strengths conversations to be happening all over the campus."

These touchpoints are what made Furman stand out to as a nominee and winner of the Don Clifton Strengths for Students Award. According to Tom Matson, architect and senior contributor for CliftonStrengths for Students, Gallup's very best schools have roughly 24 unique conversations over four years.

"At Furman, for example, these CliftonStrengths for Students conversations are integrated into the first-year experience, the career and professional development, leadership development, academic advising and residence life," says Matson. "You're seeing these really intentional, methodical conversations flow throughout campus -- that's best practice,"

What Strength Looks Like (Even Amid Disruption)

Though the educational landscape has changed dramatically between Furman's nomination for the Don Clifton Strengths for Students Award and being named a winner, the focus on strengths and a thriving engaged campus remains. Whether it's a study away program, remote learning, or another opportunity for growth, the language of strengths connects people, identifies needs, fosters reflection, and allows students to be intentional in their experiences.

"Now people are realizing that strengths drive engagement and wellbeing not just for students but also faculty and staff."

In a time of increased disconnection, strengths can be a vital bridge for wellbeing and engagement in and out of schools.

"The best pathway to connect is knowing what it is that you do best, how you show up, how you are life-giving to other people," says Keefer. "That's what empowers people and fosters a sense of belonging."

Read more about focusing on what's strong with students:

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