Texas Tech University

Taking A Personal Interest in Student Success

Doug Hensley

September 19, 2023


Texas Tech responds to pandemic-related challenges by training and deploying specialists to connect with and guide students during their college journey.

This story is part of a series looking at examples of innovation on the Texas Tech campus. This installment examines how Student Success Specialists came to be part of the Texas Tech educational experience.

For the better part of five consecutive semesters in the not-too-distant past, the Texas Tech University community had to navigate a seemingly endless pandemic. While almost everyone was impacted to some degree, few were affected more than the student population.

“We were seeing lots of gaps in learning as a result of COVID-19,” said Megan Ohlmann, director of student engagement at Texas Tech. “Part of it was students who had been online toward the end of their high school year and then having to reconcile the academic expectations that they were coming into the university with.”

While one aspect of what Texas Tech officials observed was linked to academics, a second important discovery had to do with community and apprehensive students figuring out how and where to fit in. College has long been the place where young people begin realizing who they are, but the pandemic also upended social norms.

“Students were arriving with a whole host of belonging-related issues and just getting connected,” she said. “Getting out of their residence hall rooms, reemerging and reintegrating into the campus.”

Now, with the pandemic officially declared over, students are still dealing with and working through a variety of issues.

“We saw our student needs were becoming more complex, and this was happening at the same time our enrollment was growing,” Ohlmann said. “We have all of these things going on, and that is a lot to put on academic advisers who are also doing course planning, degree plans, helping students move toward graduation and all of these things.”

One idea that surfaced was to designate and train an entirely new personnel group who would be student-focused and complement academic advisers. Their efforts would center on more direct contact with students and helping them overcome the non-academic challenges that have become more prevalent and pronounced recently. Likewise, they would work in concert with the various student success centers already established within colleges.

Career Center

Equally important to the initiative, Texas Tech wanted to centrally train this group of people in a uniform manner but not have them centrally located. Instead, they would be strategically deployed throughout the colleges, making them nearer and more accessible to the student populations they would serve.

“We were constantly reaching out to students without any communication with the colleges,” she said. “We wanted to create the opportunity for ongoing conversations.”

Meet Texas Tech's Student Success Specialists, a crackerjack group of almost 20 people spread throughout the colleges with a job description built on proactive relationship-building and keeping students focused on academic goals and personal well-being.

“We wanted to have these specialists embedded within the academic colleges so that not only would the technology piece have greater success,” Ohlmann said, “but so there would also be face-to-face conversations. We wanted to have this coordinated network of care around students.”

The specialists began their work during the spring semester. Texas Tech began by hiring 18 with three lead success specialists who each oversee a group. The early returns have been encouraging.

“The colleges each operate differently, and some of them had an established success center,” she said. “Take Davis College, for example. They have a great student success center and everything we were hearing over there is things were going great, and they were working with students. So, the last thing they needed was me to come in there and say, ‘Here's this brand new thing you've never heard of, but try it.'

“Because they would probably look at me and say, ‘You know we've been doing this, right?'”

That called for a more nuanced and calculated approach that would also incorporate a high degree of flexibility.

“How it rolled out depended on the colleges,” she said. “Davis is different from Media and Communication. There were a lot of factors involved, and as we got going, we moved slower in some cases, but that has also been great because we've been able to do some new things.”

As a result, a success specialist deployed in the College of Education worked with the team there in identifying a need for first- and second-year students. That's where the specialist's focus is.

“Our success specialist there is not only supporting those students but also leading a student organization in the college,” Ohlmann said. “They have a smaller student population, and she has met many of them face to face. And she also has room on her plate to be an adviser for a student group.”

Having a customizable approach has benefited the specialists and the respective colleges as they have worked together to develop a new and welcome resource for students.

“I think if we had come in and said this is exactly what this specialist will do, and it will be exactly according to this formula, it would not have been successful because each college is unique and has its own needs,” she said.

Another advantage is specialists can share best practices with each other so an approach that works in one college might also find traction elsewhere.

“We might get data back that says, ‘This was successful here, let's try it over here where students might need the same kind of support,'” she said. “Sometimes it might be too different, but at least it keeps everyone from being out there operating on islands where they might be doing these great things we never hear about.”

Texas Tech is excited about the future of the idea as more success specialists are onboarded, trained and assigned, meaning additional chances to have a positive impact on the educational trajectory of students.

“We are still getting a sense of what our ratio should be,” Ohlmann said. “The goal is to have low ratios of students to specialists, so that number will continue to vary. I try to encourage them not to compare with each other. Their jobs are the same, but they're not.”

As the Fall 2023 semester begins, every incoming student has been assigned a specialist as part of the group of people dedicated to helping them flourish not just academically, but in other important ways as well.

“I would love for every single incoming student to hear from their success specialist within the first four weeks,” she said. “We're trying to take a personalized approach, and we know students value authenticity and the personal connection, so that's something they're focused on, letting them know, ‘Hey, if you ever need to talk, I'm here.' And that's important.

“These students today are under a lot more pressure than students were 10 or 15 years ago, so the more resources we can put at their disposal, the better.”