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How West Virginia University Connects Strengths to Students' Purpose

How West Virginia University Connects Strengths to Students' Purpose

by Kyle Christensen

Story Highlights

  • West Virginia University uses strengths to drive its purpose initiative
  • Faculty and staff use strengths in classes, advising and mentoring
  • Student retention rates have increased since WVU’s strengths integration

West Virginia University’s mission is to help students find their purpose. WVU believes that exploring students’ unique purpose propels them toward successful, satisfying careers -- and pushes students to become more than they thought they could be.

This belief led leaders to create WVU’s Purpose Center -- the first of its kind on any campus worldwide.

Opened in fall 2022, the Purpose Center is a space for exploration and connection, with the intention that students spend meaningful time in self-discovery to try new things, find out who they are, discover what drives them, and connect with their campus peers, faculty and staff. It also gives faculty, staff and leaders space to discover their inherent talents, refine those talents, and point them toward success on campus and beyond.

WVU sees CliftonStrengths® as a tool on the journey toward purpose -- and it’s using strengths to teach students, faculty and staff more about who they are. CliftonStrengths is the talent assessment that helps people discover their unique strengths, aiding their understanding of themselves and how they contribute to the world around them.

Whitney Godwin, director of the Purpose Center, says purpose and strengths are working together to give students the ability to know themselves better.

“We’ve had a lot of students say, ‘I never had words for why I do this, for why I think this way.’ And I think that really builds that confidence to then help them go make that impact and pursue those things that they’re passionate about.”

This strategic CliftonStrengths integration bolsters WVU’s mission to help prospective students and employees -- as well as current students, faculty, staff and alumni -- discover (or rediscover) their purpose and place in the world.

WVU’s all-encompassing approach starts with the Purpose Center but extends to every corner of campus, from 4-H programs to graduate programs, the education workplace, university leadership teams and parents. Within its first year of implementation, the Purpose Center worked with over 115 different departments. It drives academic achievement, employee development, student and staff engagement, and campus connection.

How It Started at WVU

Alongside the debut of the Purpose Center, WVU launched its strengths initiative with the first annual campus Week of Purpose. The Week of Purpose hosts more than 60 events for students, faculty and staff to choose from. These activities center on strengths, careers and outcomes, health and wellbeing, and leadership.

As part of the rollout, large groups of WVU students, faculty and staff discovered their strengths for the first time. To help them get the most out of their results, WVU conducted Strengths 101 workshops where participants learned more about their unique strengths and how to use them intentionally.

It wasn’t just students who attended these workshops -- groups like the university’s executive leadership team, college deans, Visitor Center tour guides, the College of Engineering’s IT group, and many others had the chance to participate.

WVU also launched eight pilot groups across campus to learn how students would interact with strengths, collecting follow-up survey and focus group data and identifying resources needed for a successful initiative.

Strengths coaching, classes and workshops are available all year to ensure everyone on campus has the support and development they need to find their purpose and succeed.

WVU’s All-Encompassing Approach to Strengths

Since WVU launched the Purpose Center, CliftonStrengths has become ingrained in the way students, faculty and staff experience campus life -- in their lives at work and at school.

For students, it starts in their first year when they take the CliftonStrengths assessment before orientation. An introduction to strengths allows students to create a quicker connection on campus and demonstrates how WVU will be there to guide them on their academic journey. Students then get to participate in strengths-infused orientation sessions aimed at helping them start off on the right foot.

Starting a college career with the added benefit of knowing and claiming their CliftonStrengths gives students the tools to help navigate the challenges and obstacles that come with newfound independence and university life. When students understand themselves and others better, it creates a sense of unity and belonging that helps students persist and overcome.

But the real strengths work starts well before students arrive on campus.


WVU uses CliftonStrengths to provide a better workplace experience for instructors, a better classroom environment for students and a healthy campus culture, ensuring everyone on campus speaks one common language of strengths and success.

In addition to helping them discover their strengths, WVU provides learning and development opportunities for faculty and staff through CliftonStrengths workshops. These include tailored workshops for instructors, academic advisors, faculty and teams. It’s an important element of a strengths-based approach; Gallup has found that employees who know and use their strengths are more engaged in their work.

Many of the workshops aim to provide faculty and staff with a road map for integrating strengths into how they interact with students. That includes teaching strengths-based study skills, time management, and communication. Advisors are encouraged to help students understand and invest in their strengths using strengths-based conversation starters and reflection questions.

This campuswide approach allows students to use their strengths more often, which is essential for development. In the classroom, students get to experience the power of strengths within groups and team projects, with guidance from their instructors.

Faculty member Kelly Nix says this approach has improved the classroom experience for students.

“I love using a strengths-based approach in my classes because a lot of my classes are team-based. So when the students are working in teams, their strengths come alive.”

The Impact of Strengths

WVU uses CliftonStrengths as a catalyst to help drive the culture and initiatives it wants to see on campus. And the results so far are astounding.

Instructors have seen the impact of using strengths in the classroom to encourage better participation, teamwork and communication. Leaders on campus have seen the excitement, confidence and growth from students that accompany their interactions with strengths.

Dr. Ashley Watts, a program director at WVU, has noticed strengths improving the first-year student experience.

“I can see the difference. I can see the growth with those students. They’re excited to start their college career. They’re more confident. They know more about who they are.”

WVU’s efforts have created more touchpoints for students and helped them build a stronger connection to their peers and the university. Students feel supported and empowered to persevere through challenges. That empowerment is reflected in the university’s latest retention statistics: WVU saw its second-highest freshman retention rate in history (81.4%) from fall 2022 to fall 2023. And graduation rates are climbing as well.

CliftonStrengths is also propelling student success. Rhonda Black, who directs the First-Year Experience, says she has seen increases in student GPAs after incorporating strengths into her one-credit course designed for students on academic notice or probation.

Students say WVU’s strengths-based approach has helped them better understand who they are, what they’re good at, and how to apply their strengths both in the classroom and throughout their time on campus.

That application of strengths gives students the confidence and self-awareness to search for and discover their unique purpose -- which is exactly what West Virginia University has set out to accomplish. Everyone on campus at WVU plays an important role in helping students find their purpose -- and CliftonStrengths is the fabric that binds them all together.

Use strengths to propel the outcomes that matter most to you:


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