Texas Tech University

Success Is Their Middle Name

Doug Hensley

October 17, 2023

Texas Tech’s Student Success Specialists are trained and ready to be a resource.

(This story is part of a series looking at examples of innovation on the Texas Tech campus. This installment looks at the role of Student Success Specialists.)

As spring break came and went and the semester rolled along, Jayc Waller noticed something. His calendar was filling up like never before, and a queue of students was showing up at his office doorstep with troubles and worries like never before.

“The last three weeks of the spring semester, I was booked with appointments from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every single day,” he said. “And it was like solid tears in my office with students just kind of checking out.”

Welcome to a day in the life of a Student Success Specialist. Waller, who began his Texas Tech University career in student engagement, now works as a success specialist in the Edward E. Whitacre Jr. College of Engineering

Since being trained and moving into his new duties at his Holden Hall office, Waller has worked diligently to cultivate relationships and build trust especially with first-year engineering students.

“I was trained in student engagement, and then interviewed with different colleges across campus. They really wanted us to find the best fit for each of us as far as where we wanted to go and that it worked for the college,” he said. “When I interviewed with engineering, I loved it because of the leadership, and they had a clear idea of what they wanted us to do here.”

Waller is one of three success specialists in the College of Engineering, joining John Burdan and Melanie Lindsey. Each has a different area of responsibility, but all fall under the larger umbrella of Texas Tech's emphasis on student retention.

For his part, Waller helps first-year students navigate the unexpected bumps and sudden challenges that accompany transitioning to college.

“Unfortunately, when we lose students, it's often within that first year,” he said. “So, that's a big thing for me, trying to figure out ways I can help with that, and the thing that I have seen the most is a lot of students just don't want to engage. That's understandable because they went through COVID-19.”

Waller seeks to puncture those bubbles of isolation through a variety of approaches, including a social media campaign still in its infancy and consistent informal communication, worrying only about messages landing and getting traction.

“I reach out to students pretty much on a day-to-day basis,” he said. “And I do it in a way that's not like their instructor or a dean reaching out. It's very conversational English, and when I communicate through email, it's more of a tone like, ‘How's your semester going?'

“I am not worried about grammatical errors because when they see those, it may help them realize it's a message from someone who's not going to judge them. I'm just trying to make sure they know I am here for them and accessible.”

Success specialists will provide advice to students, but they should not be confused with academic advisers and the equally important work they do.

“Advisers are awesome and have been doing a great job for a long time,” Waller said. “The challenge, though, is they typically meet with lots of students only once in a semester, and they focus on the things students have to do to get their degree.”

Texas Tech saw the opportunity to provide another resource for its student population, reducing the burden on academic advisers and freeing specialists to zero in on what might best be described as life issues.

“The advisers have time to focus on students and what they need academically,” he said. “And when a student comes in to meet with me, I'm not talking about classes they need for next semester or anything like that. I'm more worried about how they are and what's going on in their life. Are they OK? Are their classes OK? What's not OK?

“If something isn't OK, we can talk about the resources we have that are available. Maybe they need tutoring. Maybe they need to go to life coaching, which is a phenomenal resource that we refer out to pretty heavily.”

Here's what Waller sees as the most important part of every interaction, though: the human touch. The student discovers face-to-face that someone else is deeply interested in them and how their Texas Tech experience is spooling out.

“My whole purpose is sitting there with them, listening intently and trying to figure out what's going on,” he said. “Are there behavioral things that I notice that tell me maybe things are not going so well? If so, I can check back in with them and see if they might be open to therapy or considering it.”

Success specialists were originally deployed to their posts within colleges last February. It took a few weeks for word to spread, but once students understood this was one more person they could have in their corner, they moved quickly to take advantage.

“Early, it was a couple of students here and there, but last spring was our first semester,” Waller said. “I think a big issue was they just hadn't heard of us yet, but later in the semester, they were in here talking about things like, ‘I am going to fail three classes. What do I do and how did I get here?'”

Engineering students typically are seen as high-achieving, problem-solving, get-the-job-done people who never need help, but Waller said that is an unfair stereotype that could actually impede students from seeking the assistance they need and deserve.

“I think that can be somewhat harmful,” he said. “It puts a little bit of a negative connotation on them. People forget they're humans too. They still need to be checked in on. To some extent, I would say it's worse for them to have that stigma because of the social culture around them that says they have to be a high achiever. 

“You keep hearing that you have to have it all together to be an engineering student. They keep telling themselves that, and they don't ask for help, and it leads to a snowball effect.”

If it sounds like Waller knows what he's talking about, that's because he does. As a high-achieving post-graduate microbiology student, he once found himself overwhelmed – and sought out a therapist to help him talk through his emotions. That experience helps him connect with students and lets them know he understands what they are feeling.

“I think sharing my story with them tells them it's OK to ask for help,” he said. “Life is hard, and college is hard, and they need to know it's OK when you hit these bumps in the road. It is not the end of the world, and someone telling them that is a huge relief for them.”

Call it permission to exhale in the middle of stress and realize just about everyone deals with some kind of adversity in their life, especially during their college years.

“Maybe I'm the first person who has reminded them that they are an adult, and they have choices,” Waller said. “Maybe they can drop one class so they can put more effort into their other classes and do really well. Reassuring them they have agency has been one of the biggest things that's seemed to help them.”

For Waller, having a calendar packed with student appointments is something of a mixed blessing. He knows many will be looking for solutions to the tough stuff of life, but he is also a resource who can be everything from sounding board to referral center. 

“I would tell students that I am here for them for literally anything,” he said. “I get emails from students asking who their financial adviser is. I can pull that up and tell the person to contact. But I am also here for the hard things. If you're having a hard time with a roommate, come talk to me. We can figure something out, and if we can't, I can refer you to experts who can.”

The most important thing, though, is not to wait too long. 

“I would say come in early rather than waiting until the ship is already sinking,” he said. “I can play damage control and feel like I'm pretty good at it, but I would much rather we catch something earlier in the semester.”