Student Trip Leaders Reflect on the Experience Co-Leading an Alternative Spring Break Trip

by Peter Wilkinson, Alternative Spring Break Coordinator, Community Engagement & Leadership

The OSU Alternative Spring Break program is a special experience in student peer leadership for both participants and trip leaders. Run by Community Engagement & Leadership (CEL), Alt. Break offers immersive community-engaged service & leadership trips to 3 communities across the west coast during OSU’s spring break. Teams of 10-12 students immerse themselves in a community to learn about its historical, cultural, and political background by engaging in a variety of service projects, educational sessions, & reflection with local leaders and change-makers. Students explore complex social issues and how to create social change to build a more equitable, caring world. Alt. Break is all about experiential learning, team building, and growth through student peer leadership!

The really unique thing about our Alt. Break program, is the trips are entirely student led! A team of student employees, which includes 2-3 logistics staff & 6 trip leaders, plan and deliver the trips. The Alt. Break Coordinator, Peter Wilkinson, supervises the team, but no professional staff or faculty go on the trips. We believe in giving students the opportunity to develop their leadership skills and identities by taking on this big peer leadership role! Trip leaders work in pairs to lead the trips and logistics staff play a support role. The team starts planning in November to deliver the trips in March. They outreach to community organizations & leaders to build partnerships and co-facilitate pre-trip team meetings to orient participants to the program and conduct team building beforehand. They lead all elements of the trips (itinerary, reflection sessions, travel, meals, & supplies) while serving in an on-call crisis response role.

Below are some reflections from 3 of the 6 trip leaders from this year’s 2024 Alt. Break program. They were asked to reflect on their peer leadership including what it was like to lead an Alt. Break trip as a student, the impact of the program on them and participants, how they built their team, and tips they have for other peer leaders & mentors at OSU!

Maddi Moore

Trip: Ashland, Oregon | Digging Deeper: Environmental Conservation, Restoration, & Justice

A student standing on green grass and next to green foliage. In the background is a small building and a blue sky with a few wispy white clouds.

Alt Break supported my learning, growth and development by allowing me to develop my leadership skills and gain more confidence in those skills. I enjoyed connecting with the participants, leading reflection activities and creating a welcoming environment. At times I felt overwhelmed without having professional staff, but I could still admit when I didn’t know something and ask for support from my other co-lead.

We developed a strong team dynamic before and during the trip by leading with honesty and humor. We were always honest when we messed something up or didn’t know something ,and we often joked around with participants. We covered some uncomfortable topics on the trip, and because we were so open with the team, people felt more comfortable to share during those conversations. Throughout the trip people clearly felt comfortable to let loose and be themselves, and we created an environment where people felt safe.

Ismael Rodriguez Cardoso

Trip: San Francisco, CA | Change, Not Coins: Housing & Food Insecurity
A group of nine people wearing white aprons and hair nets. They are smiling and posed in front of a large window. On the wall above them is a sign that says "Food = Love."

Being part of this program has been an incredibly enriching experience—from immersing myself in the experiences of the houseless community to sharing heartfelt moments with individuals from diverse backgrounds, and contributing to the legacy of the Alt Break trip. Every aspect has been truly remarkable. This trip offers a unique opportunity for personal and leadership growth that I believe everyone should participate in. Stepping out of one’s comfort zone to engage in service projects and educate oneself on various topics is a great way to grow as a leader and unlearn many social biases. My time in San Francisco has not only broadened my understanding on social justice but also ignited a passion to continue learning about different issues, both locally and globally.

Leading up to the Alt break trip, our team invested their time in three meaningful pre-trip meetings. Within these meetings, we got a better understanding of one another, explored our individual leadership values, and identied our preferred modes of interaction. This groundwork fostered a sense of connection among us. What truly made us connect and bond was the shared enthusiasm and readiness to take on this Alt Break trip together, to engage with the community, and to learn from one another’s cultural backgrounds.

I also want to thank my other co-lead, Jenny, for taking on this trip with me. We collaborated closely on creating the itinerary and Zoom calls with community partners. This not only strengthened our bond, but our energy rubbed its positive impact on our participants. To this day, the whole San Francisco Alt Break trip team keeps in touch with each other, and post-trip, we all have attended cultural shows around campus and events with Community Engagement & Leadership.

Seneca Moback

Trip: Yakima, WA | Tangled Roots: History, Land Use, & Cultural Engagement
A group of 13 people, many wearing maroon shirts, sitting in a circle in a green field. There are hills in the background and mostly blue sky with white clouds.

Leading Alt. Break was a great opportunity to step entirely into my role as a leader. I enjoyed facilitating conversations, hanging out in the kitchen, and checking in on students throughout the week. It was strange at times when students viewed me as an authority figure, but I still was able to balance the power dynamics. I am still a student just like them, all from different backgrounds and areas of study. I didn’t mind admitting not knowing things and asking students if they knew more than me.

Without a faculty or staff member, I felt more confident in my abilities as a leader because it was actually harder to second guess myself in moments of insecurity. We did have our supervisor on call the whole time and plenty of other types of support in place. I would encourage more programs to explore and experiment with sending students on trips like these to practice more autonomy in their groups.

These reflections illustrate some of the impact leading Alt. Break has on student leaders. We often find trip leaders return believing in themselves more than when they departed! While it may be intimidating in some ways, we seek to create a supportive, care-centered experience that prioritizes growth and learning rather than getting things “right.” As we know, students are capable of so much more than they may realize! Co-leading an Alt. Break trip, or taking on similar peer leadership roles & challenges, is one way for students to unlock and recognize that potential!

If you know students who might be interested in attending or co-leading an Alt. Break trip, encourage them to apply next year and reach out to CEL ( or the Alt. Break Coordinator, Peter Wilkinson ( Thanks for reading and supporting student leadership development at OSU!

Monster Response Rates for the NSSE

by Sarah Norek

By the time you read this, OSU’s 2024 running of the NSSE (National Survey on Student Engagement) will have closed. This year, roughly 11,000 students were invited to take the survey (of first-year & senior status) from Corvallis, Ecampus and Cascades campuses. During the months of April and May, you may have spotted the NSSE across campus, as a sticker, a digital sign, or a poster (shout out to MU Creative Studio for designing such a rad NSSE graphic!).

A light blue water dinosaur with dark blue outline next to the text "NSSE National Survey of Student Engagement"

Response Rates

  • OSU-Cascades first-year & senior response rate: 40.8%
  • OSU-Cascades login rate: 50.8%
  • OSU Corvallis & Ecampus combined first-year & senior response rate: 42.3%
  • OSU Corvallis & Ecampus login rate: 50.5%

Getting students to know about the survey so they could take it was a fun multi-campus/cross-unit feat of creativity, intentionality, planning and resources.


Following, you’ll find takeaways from members of this year’s NSSE team reflecting on the experience, what was learned about the running of a survey on this scale, and curiosities that remain. If you have questions or want to talk more about any of this, please reach out!

Collaboration is key

Collaboration can look very different between people and groups. Our approach was to connect early and routinely, think and ideate together, and divvy tasks to bring those thoughts and ideas to fruition. Chris Gasser offered, “I think the collaborative approach made all the difference! We had student-centered people with various expertise working together toward a common goal of improving the response rate. It’s hard to beat that!” Nathan Moses also shared this observation: “I think it’s important to have a conversation around the skillsets that the team members have that might not be apparent in their title.” Sadly, Nathan’s TikTok as NSSE emerging from the river never panned out, but we were there for it! 😊 The team collaborated between campuses, across units, and with students, the NSSE’s target audience. Shared Nathan, “We literally worked with students on the process, assessing what would draw their attention through smaller info groups, and leaning heavily on our MU Creative Studio students to bring to life something that would appeal to them.”

Stay curious

“We started by answering the questions, ‘Should we use this survey?’ and ‘What are the benefits if we get a higher response rate?’” Then, as we thought about how we might be able to increase survey response rates this year, “rather than accepting ‘we can’t do that’ or ‘we’ve never done it that way’ we began asking ‘who needs to be here to help us accomplish that.’ That was a pretty powerful reframing that I think yielded huge benefits!” And the questions kept going: “How can we get students to open their emails?” “Where can we show up for students so they know about the survey if they’re not opening emails?” “Who could the emails come from?” “What incentive language would resonate for folks?” The team approached NSSE as a puzzle rather than a chore, and then kept asking questions.

Maximize modalities & systems

It was important to meet students where they were at, through multiple modalities. Nathan offered, “We ran this process similar to a new branding campaign in that we used email, digital art, giveaways, and promo items to create a uniform experience. It’s great to see those Nessy stickers on the back of laptops!” It is so great! And Canvas was utilized, too. Students received a series of emails (thanks to a Marketing Cloud Journey that connected with Beaver Hub), were assigned a task in Beaver Hub, encountered NSSE survey signage in common areas, and found the NSSE shell when they visited their Canvas platform. Everywhere possible, the NSSE graphic was used to brand communications to the survey and further emphasize the link between what students were seeing and receiving.

Right-size for the survey

This campaign style approach worked for this survey, but it won’t be feasible for all surveys for a number of reasons. However, Chris shared, “NSSE is making me completely rethink how we might do surveys at OSU.” Students express survey fatigue, and resources aren’t always available to support incentives or create an email journey or design graphics and giveaways. Engaging in a thought activity, though, where one imagines what a campaign might be like, could yield new or different approaches that might lead to adaptations in the delivery, which may (or may not – it’s an experiment!) have positive impacts on results. 

Now that the data is collected, there’s so much to learn! Nathan offered that, “because of the power of working between campuses was so evident, I would assume that being intentional with connecting with comparable schools might yield interesting outcomes with the data.” I (Sarah) want to know more about how students ultimately accessed the survey because, while thousands of email recipients opened the survey, and total opens were always about double the amount of unique opens, there were, comparatively, a very low rate of clicks on the survey links from the email. We may not have a way to know exactly where students were accessing the survey from, so that’s an area for further investigation, but it feels like it underscores the opportunity to explore what compels students to go to a survey and where they prefer to access it from. And then there are all the responses to the questions themselves – there’s a great data-set from this year, and much to learn from it.

Finally, this survey and its results wouldn’t be what they are without a number of folks at OSU – the students who took it, and those faculty and staff outside of the NSSE team who helped make this campaign possible. UIT provided an immense amount of support for Beaver Hub and the Marketing Cloud Journey that was built to send emails automatically and also pull folks who’d completed the survey or opted out from subsequent emails, as well as close Beaver Hub tasks. Academic Technology helped build out the Canvas option for students to be able to find and access the NSSE in their course portal – their unique link, which cut down on the number of clicks folks had to make. MU Creative Studio designed the NSSE and made posters for the start, middle, and end of the survey. And everyone who signed the emails (including President Murthy and Benny Beaver!) and the students and staff whose sticker placement on their belongings helped spread the NSSE sightings far and wide – thank you to you all! It will be exciting to share more as responses are explored, meaning is made, and likely more questions are asked.

Feedback Forward: Cultivating Student Employee Development through Written Reflections

by Anna Bentley

I try to create many opportunities to connect with my student employees like informal check-ins, routine structured one-on-ones, and MS Teams chats when working remotely. However, I’m not always immediately available to the students I supervise, so I wanted to find a way to increase meaningful connection and feedback points with each of them asynchronously. That’s why in winter 2024 I implemented a routine written reflection for my student staff to complete.

I wanted whatever I created to be a two-way conversation, not just Strategists sharing with me. I ended up creating a unique Word document for each Strategist and stored them in Box. Each document has the prompts for that week and a place for me to leave feedback at the bottom. When I give feedback, I include my observations of their work, plus my response to what they had written under their reflection prompts. In my feedback, I try to illuminate everyone’s strengths and show gratitude while also pushing them to grow, filling in knowledge gaps, and inviting them to adjust in certain areas of their work.

After each round of their reflection and my feedback, I add new prompts to the bottom of the document. One motivation for creating this system was to create a single record of their growth and progress, which they can hopefully take with them in future contexts. I was also hoping that this practice would create a habit of deep self-reflection, as well as make feedback exchange more frequent and comfortable.

What student staff say about written reflections

Students have shared with me that they generally appreciate the reflection space. They find that it helps keep them accountable and stay on track with goals and projects. They also like that it’s a place where they can share something with me that I didn’t get to witness, like a proud and/or exceptionally challenging moment they experienced when I wasn’t around. They find the feedback I share very encouraging and informative, and it’s helpful to get their questions answered somewhere where they can reference later.

What I’ve noticed as a supervisor

I gain so much from their reflections. I now have a much deeper understanding of what’s going on for my employees internally and find that some folks who are typically more reserved in person are much more comfortable communicating through this written channel. Overall, I’ve noticed them becoming increasingly comfortable with giving me feedback on my supervision. At first, they were reluctant to share much feedback, but now it’s very common for me to receive feedback about what I can do differently, which allows me to make adjustments and improve our program and professional relationships.

Lessons learned

Not everything about the written reflection has gone swimmingly. I’ve made several adjustments throughout the process because of their feedback, and here are the lesson’s I’ve learned:

  1. Pick an effective frequency. It became clear that weekly written reflections were too frequent. Biweekly reflections have been proving to be much more fruitful and manageable.
  2. Change up the prompts. I ask different questions for every reflection while still following a similar pattern. Initially, I thought that asking identical questions every week would make it easier for us to track their growth, but engagement waned pretty quickly. Changing up the questions has led to deeper reflections and insights. Here some example questions I’ve asked in written reflection.
  3. Ask the right number of questions. I found that sticking to three questions per reflection seemed to be the sweet spot. I usually keep each question within three broad themes: one question directly related to self-reflection, one question related to training or learning, and one question that invites them to provide feedback on my supervision or how our team is working together.
  4. Ask similar questions in different ways. There are some questions that I like to ask frequently, such as “How can I better support you?” In these cases, I try asking the question in a different way each time to solicit different perspectives.

I supervise a small team of seven, so I realize a system like this may not be feasible for larger teams. It takes time to write thoughtful feedback for each employee every two weeks. To me, that time investment is totally worth it. The benefits to me and my team continue to unfold, and I will certainly carry this practice forward with my next cohort of student employees. Do you have a system for collecting routine feedback from employees? Are there elements of this system you want to integrate into your own practice? Do you have questions or feedback for me on this approach? If so, I’d love to hear about it in the comments, or you can send me an email at

Five Strategies for Meaningful Discussion Board Assignments

Learning online can be challenging as instructors and students need to work actively to form connections and create community. This often happens through discussion boards. At times, I’ve talked with students who feel frustrated by discussions and requirements around engagement. In our online sections of ALS 116: Academic Success, I’ve tried to create an approach to discussions that encourages students to engage in meaningful ways. In our end of term surveys, students often share that they appreciated the structure of discussions that encouraged them to form connections and push conversation further in replies.

While these may not work for all courses or contexts, here are a few of the strategies I’ve landed on for encouraging student participation and engagement:

  1. Asking students to reply using names. This may seem small, but seeing your name and not just a line linking a reply to your post can create connection. I also make a list of names and pronouns shared in the first discussion and link to that in every subsequent discussion, so students can easily check that they’re using correct names and pronouns when they reply to or reference another student’s post.
  2. Encouraging balance between listening and responding. Asking students to first acknowledge specifics of what the other person said prior to sharing their own thinking can demonstrate listening in an online environment. Most of the time, posts are too long to respond to everything another person shared, but naming a specific moment from the post can ground replies in specifics of the original post prior to building on that post with individual perspective that furthers the conversation.
  3. Requiring that replies go beyond praise, summary, agreement, and/or questions. These are great starting points for identifying a focus area for a reply. If students choose one of these, the “why” can build on thinking. For example, if you think something is praise-worthy, why is that? What value do you see? How did it impact your thinking? How has your understanding changed as a result of what the other person contributed? Prompting with these types of questions early on helps students create habits around explaining meaning.
  4. Providing sample discussion board post replies. Showing what a reply can look like when it builds on praise, summary, agreement, and questions can help students imagine what’s possible and demonstrate the length of response that is likely needed to engage with another person’s ideas. I also include a list of potential ways students could respond to help folks brainstorm what they might add to the conversation.
  5. Showing students the value of their contributions.  Every three weeks, I ask students to reflect on a topic from a prior week. They describe their thinking before the module work and discussion. They then quote and cite another student’s discussion that had an impact on their learning and explain why that post was important to them. Then, they share where their thinking is now. This frames an expectation of learning from each other, and students can see where their post influenced another person’s thinking and contributed to their learning.

Discussion boards can be a great way for students to connect with and learn with and from each other throughout the term, and each class shapes discussion in its own way. I hope you find some of these strategies useful, and I’d love to hear, via email or replies, what you’ve found helpful for prompting conversation and community in online classes.

SEE Your Growth in Student Employment

by Emily Bowling, representative from the SEE YOUR GROWTH workgroup


Student Experiences & Engagement (SEE) believes in the power of leadership development via student employment and creating quality student employment experiences. Student employment represents one of our largest investments as an organization, both financially and in terms of professional faculty time invested in hiring, training, and providing ongoing supervision, mentoring, coaching, and support. SEE has created a process called SEE YOUR GROWTH to embody our goals, values, and investment in student employment. The SEE YOUR GROWTH process is an annual reflective, meaning making process for student employees to synthesize, summarize, and celebrate accomplishments, skills, growth, and lessons learned from their year of student employment. SEE YOUR GROWTH is an approach that has evolved over time and has shown effectiveness at scale across departments and diverse supervisors and advisors while centering the individual student employee’s development over the course of their employment with us. This piece summarizes this initiative as a model that has potential to be adapted to other areas of OSU employing students. 

SEE, established in 2019, is composed of four departments: Experiential Learning & Activities, Craft Center, Diversity & Cultural Engagement, and Community Engagement & Leadership. In 2020, representatives from each department came together with a desire to create some organizational cohesion and consistency to how we support student employee leadership development in alignment with our protocols and values. Now this group is called the SEE YOUR GROWTH workgroup. We also had an interest in how we could iteratively improve and tell the collective story of student employment across our organization. The annual SEE YOUR GROWTH process was created through that collective work and was born in Spring 2021. 

This process is the manifestation of a belief in utilizing critical reflection as a tool for personal and professional growth. Each spring term, student employees reflect in writing on their growth and learning in the areas of wellbeing (personal and collective), social justice, community and belonging, leadership, and career and beyond SEE; they then deepen and expand upon their answers in dialogue and conversation with their supervisor and often their peers as well. These categories were created to align with SEE’s values and protocols, shared learning outcomes and goals for the student employment programs across SEE, and annual and ongoing training and professional development opportunities. You can view the 2024 student reflection questions in pdf format here:  SEE YOUR GROWTH Student Reflection TEMPLATE Form.

Additionally, our workgroup annually updates a SEE Your Growth Supervisor/Adviser Companion Guide – 2023-2024 to support supervisor and advisor preparation for the process. We have over 20 different supervisors each year engaging in this process, and this helps establish shared language and a common entry point regarding the importance and goals of the process, role of supervisors and advisors, and tips and guidance for implementation and success with students. 

Process Overview

The SEE YOUR GROWTH process occurs throughout the year:

Spring Term

  • Supervisors and advisors distribute SEE YOUR GROWTH reflection forms to student employees
  • Supervisors and advisors meet 1:1 and in groups to discuss responses with student employees
  • Supervisors and advisors complete a Supervisor/Advisor Reflection Form to identify themes in each category of student responses, pride points, and growth opportunities for student employment. 

Summer Term

  • Supervisors and advisors engage in department and unit level meaning making from the SEE YOUR GROWTH process.
  • With unit leadership, supervisors and advisors update learning outcomes and goals for student employment.

Fall Term

  • Supervisors and advisors implement updated student employment strategies.
  • Supervisors and advisors deliver fall training and student employees set goals for their positions and learning for the year. 

Winter Term

  • SEE YOU GROWTH workgroup iterates and updates materials for the next cycle.

Ongoing: Supervisor/advisor coaching and developing of student employees and continued learning and development for supervisors/advisors and student employees. 

Lessons Learned and Next Steps

We are entering our fourth cycle of SEE YOUR GROWTH. Annually, SEE has approximately 200 student employees participate in the SEE YOUR GROWTH process. We have tweaked the student reflection questions each year to narrow in on questions that work best in an individual reflection process. There are strengths to both 1:1 supervisor conversations and group or peer to peer conversations on the reflection questions; students benefit from practicing sharing their learning and growth out loud and hearing about the growth and changes others have observed in them. 

We have found that students tend to undersell or describe their accomplishments more narrowly in relationship to the actual impact and scope of their work. Therefore, we have found significant benefit to providing space for students to practice telling the story of the impact of their student employment and the skills they have gained and strengthened with a supervisor they have worked with for 9 months or longer as well as with peers they have worked with for an academic year. These conversations are also a time for supervisors to reflect back to students the learning and growth they have observed.  

Student responses help inform adjustments to fall training topics and ongoing coaching and training during the year if student responses are less robust or deep in particular categories. Students in their last year at OSU especially appreciate the opportunity to draw connections between their student employment experiences and their future goals and plans, to practice identifying the transferability of their skills to new contexts and applications. Students across the board have appreciated the opportunity to update their resume with the student employment highlights and practice speaking out loud about their growth in their student employment role. 

We are starting to see more consistent themes in student responses. Past response themes can be viewed here: SEE YOUR GROWTH Reflection Summary Slides. Here is a sample student quote from the process: “My employment in SEE has taught me incredibly valuable facilitation and public speaking skills. These are skills that I had very limited opportunity to explore and develop before my time in SEE, and I’m very excited that I know I have them moving forward in my professional career.” 

The Supervisor/Advisor Reflection Form was added in our second year as a way to engage supervisors and advisors after the process, support assessment and theming skill practice for supervisors, and also  identify topics for supervisor professional development; it’s been hugely effective at achieving these goals. It also allows each supervisor to assume greater responsibility over the student employee experience in their area. We are hoping to grow more annual skill building and shared learning sessions for supervisors across SEE as we move forward into 2024 and beyond. SEE YOUR GROWTH has been one way to build organizational buy-in to the importance of yearlong student employee development and training as well as celebrating our collective impact as an organization. It’s been a labor of love supported across SEE and it is becoming a tradition to celebrate our growth — of our student employees, of our supervisors, and of our organization as a whole.

If you’re interested in learning more or adapting SEE YOUR GROWTH for your unit or organization, please contact Emily Bowling,  

SEE YOUR GROWTH workgroup:

  • Whitney Archer, Diversity & Cultural Engagement
  • Ange Purviance, Craft Center
  • Velyn Scarborough, Experiential Learning & Activities
  • Emily Bowling, Community Engagement & Leadership

Don’t Tell Me I “Did Well”: Making a Case for Non-Evaluative Language

by Chessie Alberti

Recently, I asked one of our writing consultants what they thought would be a cool idea from the Writing Center to “show off” in a blog post. What was something they thought worth sharing from the work that we do? What would they like to yell about from the rooftops?

Their answer was, “avoiding evaluative language.”

In the Writing Center, we make a point to avoid evaluative language when we offer writers feedback about their work. This stems in part from a desire to decenter grade-related language from our approach as peer consultants, but it also opens the door to all kinds of communication benefits and pedagogical advantages.

What does it look like to avoid evaluative language?

Here is an example of evaluative language we use in our training: “The organization works well.”

Here is the same example, revised to avoid evaluative language: “The organization of the essay makes it easy for me, as a reader, to see the connection between each paragraph topic and the thesis. I know, for instance, how the point about how parents know their children best supports the thesis that argues the federal or state government should take a hands-off approach to laws around parenting.”

In the revised version, the evaluative statement is reframed as an observation of what’s happening on the page and the impact it has on the reader. It includes information that goes beyond simple praise and moves into a detailed analysis of why the organization works well.

Avoiding evaluative language can be a high-impact mental exercise that benefits both the giver and the receiver of information.

Here are some helpful side effects that I notice when I deprogram evaluative thinking:

My feedback improves

It’s much easier to say, “That’s great! I love it!” than to explain and identify exactly why something is great and why it’s working. Non-evaluative praise requires more critical thought and more detailed feedback, which ultimately results in a higher-quality piece of information for the praise-receiver to learn from. Telling a writer, “Great work on this essay!” offers positive, effort-based reinforcement for their work, but “Your hard work paid off for me as a reader of this essay. The introduction drew me in, which made me want to keep reading, and each paragraph introduced new, intriguing information that seemed tailored to the audience,” tells them exactly what is working and why it’s working. More detailed feedback offers more information to consider next time the writer is working on an essay.

Constraints open doors

Although at first, it might seem harder to put in the critical thought required to determine why something is awesome instead of just that it is awesome, working within a constraint can be fertilizer for the brain. When given a constraint, instead of asking, “What should I do?”, I end up asking: “What can I do?” Sometimes, adding rules opens the door to creativity. No evaluative language? I can’t just say, “That’s awesome!” and leave it there? Well, what can I say? What do I notice about why something is “great” or “awesome”? When given a constraint, I might surprise myself by generating a more creative response.  

Opinions can be the enemy of connection

Using non-evaluative language nudges me to decenter my opinion. When I evaluate something, I am bringing in criteria I have developed throughout my life that informs whether I think of something as “good” or “bad.” These criteria could be built on previous experience and existing knowledge that causes me to be an effective judge of something, and they can also be built on pre-existing biases and criteria unrelated to the task at hand. When I slow down to extract evaluative language from my response, I practice seeing the situation through clearer lenses. Instead of jumping in to evaluate, I often find myself practicing curiosity, asking more questions, and holding more space. It gives me time to listen and understand and to really connect with the person I’m in conversation with.

Accuracy goes beyond “good” or “bad”

Noticing and questioning an evaluative statement can help us dig in to what we’re really experiencing and prompt us to offer more accurate information. For example, if I ask you, “Hey, how’s your day going?” I bet you’ll tell me it’s going either well or poorly. But what if your day was kind of “meh,” and some nice things happened? Maybe in sharing that your day could have been better, it gets categorized into the “bad” column instead of the nuanced, complex, and more accurate category it really deserves. Avoiding evaluative answers can help us understand how we really feel about something.

Try it out

It might be impossible to avoid evaluative language entirely, but I would argue that the mental experiment of trying to avoid evaluative language as much as possible might make our lives–and our work, especially our critical feedback—much more complex and interesting.

Here’s the challenge I’ll end on: The next time you notice yourself describing something as “bad,” “good,” “nice,” “terrible,” and so on, try to replace the evaluation with an observation. What is it? What is it doing? How is it impacting you?

Be specific. See how this changes your thinking and the way you communicate with others.

The Importance of Being Welcoming: WISE Nervous Systems

by Woodrós Wolford

“Eyes”-Breakers: Looking Around the Room to Start a Meeting

Earlier this week, I met with a student I’ve met with almost a dozen times, but we went to my office instead of our usual conversational space. On our walk down the hall, we chatted about the day. When we sat down at the tan picnic table in my office, the student looked around the room, and we chatted about the topographical wall art of Crater Lake in my office, the blue walls and lighting of the space, and addressed curiosity about the strange, gray foam piece that dampens sounds in that space.

These days, this is a typical start to a meeting, especially in a new space (and I love talking about the Crater Lake art, when it comes up, since my spouse made it). If the student hadn’t started discussing the decor, I might have invited them to look around the room as a part of settling into this new space and into our conversation.

Five years ago, looking around the room before starting a serious conversation would have infuriated me! (Corny icebreakers definitely did.) Now, I am thrilled when an appointment starts this way, as I know the benefits it can bring to the nervous system and to the effectiveness of the conversation, especially in a new space or on a hectic day.

What Changed for Me

Over the last four years, I’ve been learning about somatic practices, first as a client and now as a practitioner-in-training. In the last issue of The Success Kitchen, I introduced the overlap I see between somatic practices, our Academic Coaching program, and myself. Also, as part of my onboarding at OSU, I’ve learned the WISE model, which is a structure for creating effective peer education created by Kim McAloney, then of the Educational Opportunities Program, and Clare Creighton from the Academic Success Center in the third of the peer educator training modules they developed . (Andrea Norris of the Basic Needs Center also adapted these modules for the Peer Navigators she supports.)

Because of this learning, how I see the start of a meeting with someone seeking support is different than it was before. Previously, I was much more focused on how to get into the work effectively. I liked a content-related ice breaker to get our brains ready for what was coming next! Now, I want to give space for our nervous systems to arrive and get ready. I want to honor the Welcome stage of the WISE model (Welcome, Identify Goals & Approach, Support Their Learning, End with Purpose) and use some form of “orienting,” a nervous system supportive approach to starting a conversation taught by Somatic Experiencing, International (founded by Dr. Peter Levine.)

WISE “Welcome” & Orienting

In the “Welcome” phase of a support meeting, the module suggests that we: “Arrange the space so the physical environment supports your work and helps the student feel comfortable” and “Greet the student(s) to: welcome to the session, help them get settled, and demonstrate care & interest.” Orienting aligns with this intent – in orienting, we let our eyes take in the space, noticing what’s there and particularly noticing what is pleasant to look at (like the Crater Lake art in my office.) This is helpful to settling, and we can demonstrate care and interest by looking with the other person and having a brief conversation about what we’re seeing or what it brings up. It can also work with texture, like investigating the feel of a fidget, or with sound, like noticing the birds twittering outside.

Why Take the Time to Settle at the Start

Why take time for this “Welcome” phase? How is this strategic to meeting the goals of the conversation?

Well, when we orient to a space and socially engage with another person, if we have capacity to do that with curiosity and some pleasantness, it unlocks more of our wisdom, capabilities, and higher-order thinking skills. Bringing curiosity as we notice details in our environments has the potential to settle us from a stress response or an arousal state into an “exploratory orienting response” (as opposed to “threat orientation.”) Engaging socially with another person in a more authentic way means we’re using our “ventral vagal” brake, the one we evolved specifically to be able to socialize, which has a settling effect, too.

When our nervous systems are satisfied there is not a threat, we’re more able to think deeply, problem-solve creatively, and plan effectively, all skills essential to making the most of the conversation.  Sometimes, helping someone arrive fully so that they can access the depth of their own wisdom and awesomeness is the best help that can be given.

Nervous System Needs Differ, Generally & Moment-by-Moment

An important caveat is that this is not always something that a person can do, and that’s okay. We can still do good work when we’re in a state of stress response, and even a small alleviation or decrease of that stress response can provide an increase in the quality of the conversation. In a helping role, though, we’re there to help the person no matter what their nervous system state might be – and inviting settling with the Welcome increases the chances of a settled state.

I’d also like to note that this “Settling” and “Welcome” space is great for the nervous system of the person providing the help and doing the inviting. Nervous systems actually will tune in to one another and move towards matching one another, and the calmer nervous system usually influences the more heightened one(s) to move towards its greater relaxation. This is one of the ways that coregulation shows up and, for me, connects strongly to the importance of mirror neurons in effective conversation.

Sometimes we need to settle more, sometimes the other person needs to settle more, and sometimes we just need to shift our own energy levels to match the other person so we can help them – rev up or slow down to support an activated nervous system when the stress response is too dominant. Matching energy can be a tool to fully “welcome” someone, at times. We want to meet people where they are at while maintaining our own perspectives.

By the way, when we’re slowed way, way down it can be a sign of activation – this is what we refer to as a “dorsal dominant state,” when our other, older vagus nerve system is activating something in the neighborhood of a “freeze” response (according to polyvagal theory). Sometimes we think of that as low energy, but it’s actually something that happens when we go beyond “fight or flight,” when those don’t work, so there is a lot of energy behind that form of slowness.

Want to Give it a Try?

I believe this is why the WISE model for structuring an effective peer education conversation starts with “Welcome,” and why we traditionally include “ice breakers” or “warm ups” in so many group meetings or trainings. We know we do better work when we feel more comfortable taking risks and share our thinking. It’s also why the first principle I dove into in the last issue of The Success Kitchen was “Stay Curious & Make Space.”

If any of this is resonating, I invite you to try out something from this set of ideas in some meeting today or this week. Some specific invitations are:

  • What if you observed what you already do at the start of meetings to welcome people and create a space for settling, and then you became more intentional about that?
  • Perhaps you already like to appreciate the difficulty many have in asking for help and positively reinforce that with students who come to you. What if you made that a consistent part of your start-of-meeting routine? Perhaps noticing how naming the importance of their agency in seeking out support shifts the way the meeting starts.
  • Perhaps you take a moment to notice, with the other person or people, something pleasant in the environment: a flowering tree, a bird song, or a pleasing color. When you do, does anything shift in your own system or in the energy of the meeting?
  • What if the next time you find yourself or the person you’re meeting with experiencing more activation than is helpful (a stress response) you try something like one of the following…
    • Looking around the room together for things that bring you a positive feeling and noticing them together
    • Holding and describing a nifty object to one another, like a mug or a rock or a stuffed animal
    • Doing something a little silly that brings you both a laugh
    • Each sharing something “yummy” that’s happened in the past week or day (Something with a good vibe. This could be petting a cat, a meal with friends, a satisfying work session…anything that is enjoyable to one of you individually.)
  • What if you were especially authentic or specific in the “Hi, how are you, how was your day” part of the conversation (within your boundaries of course) to give more room for” ventral vagal dominant” social connection?

Remember, there isn’t one way or one right approach to any of this – it depends on what’s authentically settling to both of your nervous systems. Some days or moments we can’t settle as much, and that’s okay – but, if you try to put some extra intention into the Welcome phase of a conversation, I invite you to see if you notice anything shifting internally, with the other person, or with the conversation.

Coming Soon… the -ISE of WISE

In future issues of The Success Kitchen, we’ll look at the interplay between somatic practices and the other components of the WISE model: Identifying goals and approach, Supporting their learning, and Ending with purpose. Bringing a nervous system perspective to the WISE model has deepened my clarity about utilizing it and training on it, and I hope it is supportive to you, as well.

Can Attending to ZPD Support Belonging?

by Clare Creighton

This past year, I watched Adam Lenz (SI Coordinator) facilitate training for new Supplemental Instruction (SI) leaders. As he talked through Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) construct from Vygotsky’s learning theory it unlocked an insight for me – I heard a connection to belonging that I hadn’t heard before. What if attending to the Zone of Proximal Development contributes to a learner’s sense of belonging?

A quick side bar on the theories themselves: The Zone of Proximal Development is the space between where someone is with their current understanding and knowledge and where they are capable of getting with support from instructors and peers. This graphic simplifies it a bit to demonstrate that between what a student can already do and what they can’t do, there lives a developmental area of what they can do when given support for their learning. Strayhorn (2012) frames belonging as the ability to feel connected to, included by and cared for by other people – respected and valued as a part of a community or system larger than you. Framed in an academic domain, belonging can be a part of learning settings if (a) students feel like a part of a community within a classroom, (b) they feel a sense of connection to the course, classmates, the instructor, the discipline, or the academic environment, and/or (c) they feel accepted, valued, included, and encouraged by others within the class and related to the course. There is far more research on this. I’m also going to use Nevitt Sanford’s (1967) theory of challenge and support to help me tie these thoughts together.

The connection I heard was this: perhaps in attending to ZPD through designing learning exercises and training within students’ zone of proximal development, we have the opportunity to also support students’ sense that they belong in that learning environment.

If a learning environment (new job, coursework) is constantly beyond the zone of proximal development (or for Sanford – too much challenge, not enough support), I imagine if it can inadvertently send messages to learners that they don’t belong: you should already know this, other people already know this, and you’re behind. Or perhaps you should be able to do this and if you can’t, you’re not cut out for this job/class/degree. Those messages can exacerbate imposter syndrome and lead to folks leaving the position/class/group, or perhaps they persist, but the experience impacts their sense of self-efficacy and therefore the way they engage in new challenges and opportunities.

On the other hand, if tasks are consistently on the other side of the zone of proximal development (too easy, not enough challenge) it can convey a different message: I don’t think you’re capable of doing hard things. If there is zero challenge, it can still make folks feel like they don’t fit and should be somewhere else – the result of which can cause folks to divest energy and taper off motivation and investment.

Balancing challenge/support and working within the zone of proximal development can convey that learning and growth are part of their experience, that you believe they can do it, and that you’ll offer support until they can do it on their own. I’m painting with a broad brush here because there are elements of either of these theories that don’t align with belonging as a primary goal (situating a “more knowledgeable other” as a key part of ZPD). But there is enough that piqued my curiosity to draw this connection.

As I’m designing and facilitating a supportive and effective learning setting, here are a few ways I can consider this connection and apply it when supporting students:

  • Recognize, honor, and create space for them to bring in their existing knowledge and skills
  • Normalize that there is a learning curve for this new environment and the skills associated with this role (“you haven’t done this before” or “I remember when I learned this for the first time”)
  • Bring in language of growth over time (“you haven’t learned that yet, and that’s okay; you will”)
  • Build positions and work environments that help students learn new skills
  • Offer opportunities to practice new skills with support or scaffolded over time
  • Be aware and attuned to where they are and what they (an individual or a group) already know/what they don’t know, and then build trainings, activities, feedback, and other opportunities that challenge and support them in a space of new learning,


Strayhorn, Terrell. (2012). College Students’ Sense of Belonging: A Key to Educational Success for All Students. College Students’ Sense of Belonging: A Key to Educational Success for All Students. 1-141. 10.4324/9780203118924.

Academic belonging. (n.d.) Retrieved October 2, 2023 from

Sanford, N. (1967) Where colleges fail: A study of the student as a person. San Fransisco: Jossey-Bass

Career in the Classroom: Lessons Learned from Teaching ALS 114

by Brenna Gomez, Director of Career Integration, Career Development Center

Part of my role as the Director of Career Integration in the Career Development Center is to collaborate with my colleagues in the University Exploratory Studies Program (UESP) and teach ALS 114: Career Decision-Making once a year. Each time I teach the course, I make updates reflecting student need, the evolving role of AI, and more.

If you’re not familiar with Career Decision-Making, it’s a course largely for UESP students to explore majors and career paths that make the most sense for their individual goals. Students engage in lots of personal reflection about their strengths, values, and interests, while participating in career activities.

With Core Education right around the corner, many instructors and faculty are working to integrate career into existing courses or create new career courses. In this article, you’ll find some tips and tricks for thinking about career in the classroom based on my experience with ALS 114.

Share your own career path

I teach ALS: 114 on Ecampus. After my spring 2023 session, I received feedback on student evaluations that it didn’t seem like there was “enough of me as a person” in the course. As a result, I recorded personalized videos with my results from some of our career activities. Focus 2 is an interests and values assessment that gives students ideas for majors and career paths (free to use for OSU students through the Career Development Center). I have students download their results and submit them for a grade. This year, I completed the assessment myself, showed students my results in a video, and talked through the majors and career paths Focus 2 suggested, including what aligned with my personal and professional goals and what did not.  I also did this with a community map assignment, showing students who has had an influence on my life. It can feel vulnerable to share with students, and as instructors we should never share anything we aren’t comfortable with. But doing the assignments we ask them to do, and talking through our own results, can build students’ connection to me and to the course, while clearing up any questions they may have about the assignment itself. That said, these assignments are relatively short and did not take me much time to complete. That wouldn’t be true of every assignment in every course, so this may not be a realistic solution for everyone.

Yes, you do need an AI policy

In spring of 2023, I taught ALS 114 for the first time and naively believed I could avoid an AI policy because the writing assignments my students completed were mostly personal or career reflections. To me, these reflections seemed short and like it would be more work to get AI to answer them. I was reminded that we don’t know the full picture of students’ lives. If they are in a difficult period, or incredibly stressed about their future, AI can be a tempting tool that provides answers without the student having to engage in the mental process of reflection. In fall of 2023, I introduced an AI policy that largely reduced the AI usage I saw in the course. Students were allowed to use AI to help them organize their thoughts but not to draft assignments wholesale. Being transparent and communicating about AI use allows students to stay within assignment guidelines and understand instructor expectations from the start of the term

Define your preferences, especially whether you prefer a “professional tone” or an “authentic voice”

Some students were tempted to still use AI to produce a more “professional tone.” In talking with students about this, they felt a professional tone reflected higher level diction than they would consider using on their own. To them, this diction made the assignment more formal. This resulted in an excellent opportunity to discuss my bigger priority than word choice: authentic voice. I was able to speak to our reflections as informal writing with my emphasis on getting to know each student’s authentic voice. We also discussed professionalism as a skill that can be built over time and does not need to be done all at once in a single assignment by changing specific words. In other courses I teach, I’ve started giving disclaimers about how authentic voice is my priority. My hope is that by discussing authentic voice in informal reflections on the front end, students won’t feel the need to use AI to enhance their word choice.

Each time I teach this class I learn new things about my teaching practice, what I’d like to emphasize for students, and what students need to feel connected. I know I’ll continue to make changes that center students and hopefully encourage them to reflect on their lives and careers in their own authentic voices.

Support Sings with a Strengths-Based & Invitational Focus

by Woodrós Wolford

Music pumped, lights shone, people danced… And I compared the facilitation styles of the lead singers of Dropkick Murphys and Pennywise from the balcony.

At a concert in Portland, Ore. last weekend, I found myself thinking about how nervous systems are impacted by invitational facilitation practices in a Moda Center crowd much like they are in a one-on-one interaction. The lead singer of Dropkick Murphys was exceptionally skilled at inviting the audience to participate and bringing out positive energy. He remained warm and good-humored even when discouraging–or breaking up!–fights.

Watching him, I thought, “Wow, what great classroom management! …I mean, concert management. But wow, so firm and kind and fun, all at once, avoiding power struggles and matching his words with his pitch and stance! And look how clearly and simply he articulated his inclusivity – unlike the really vague statements the Pennywise leader proclaimed grandly a few songs ago. Lots to learn here!”

Two years ago, I believe that I would still have noticed the contrast between the approaches of the two band leaders. (Pennywise’s leader ordered and then nagged the audience to participate rather than offering the encouragement and reinforcement like the lead singer of Dropkick Murphys. The first approach left my friend glaring with her arms crossed, defiant to being told to participate; the second allowed her to choose whether she opted in or not without feeling that resistance and annoyance.)  After all, I was a middle school teacher for years and a facilitator for over a decade! Now, however, I look at the difference between the two with a lens grounded in nervous system awareness and focused on invitational and strengths-based engagement.

Academic Coaching, SE, and Me

My understanding of invitational and strengths-based facilitation and awareness of nervous systems have been deepened through my experience as the Academic Coaching Coordinator for the Academic Success Center and also through the intensive Somatic Experiencing training sessions I’ve done over the past year. With that training, I have the dual goal of becoming a somatic experiencing practitioner (after two more years!) and utilizing the nervous-system-grounded lessons I learn there to support the efficacy of Academic Coaching and peer education at OSU more broadly. I’m excited (and nervous) to start sharing some of what I’m learning with you in this “opening act” you’re kindly reading now.

As I understand it, Somatic Experiencing (SE) is a healing modality based on activating the body’s and nervous system’s innate healing capacity. This is done by working with someone in an invitational and tailored way, while also providing tools, menus, and an overall structure. Academic Coaching is appointment-based, invitational, holistic, and person-centered, and these are traits that are shared with SE. Both are also one-on-one sessions (typically, although lessons & skills can be applied to groups!) In my role as coordinator, attending the SE training has allowed me to see why some elements of our long-lived, well-tested peer coaching model are so effective, and we’ve been able to prioritize those strengths to make a great program even better. We believe it’s especially important, post-COVID closures, to increase how welcoming, nervous-system-friendly, and inclusive Academic Coaching is…and I thought that some of my “lessons learned” might help highlight the strengths of others’ models of student support, too!

The thesis here is that we need access to our full brains in order to access our prior knowledge, think creatively, problem solve, etc. When a stress response is active, we have less access to those “higher brain” functions – and that can be because we’re having an off day, because we’re out of practice after being isolated in the pandemic, because of stereotype threat, because of overstimulation, because it’s an unfamiliar space… A plethora of reasons! Asking for help and doing new things is hard and takes a lot of capacity!

Moves We Can Make

So, what are some of the moves we can make?

We can practice curiosity about and make space for the other person’s knowledge to unfurl, using an invitational and strengths-based approach and creating spaces supportive of nervous systems.

To do that, I had to unlearn the way my brain responded to help-seeking. Even though I sought to approach teaching in a student-centered, strengths-based, and accommodating way, I didn’t live up to my goals and values. My mind immediately started looking for solutions to a question and, when I asked questions to help the person find a solution, I automatically generated questions that guided that person towards specific information or solutions. I knew that wasn’t great for critical thinking, but there wasn’t capacity to work on changing it.

Stay Curious & Make Space

However, for coaching and somatic experiencing, changing these habits was central. The other person has a huge dataset of their own lived experiences that I could never hope to understand fully, so the goal is to be truly curious and create space for the other person to notice and work with the data they already have: data from their own nervous system, lived experiences, meaning-making, and more.

Interrupt Automatic Responses

To make room for the others’ thinking and stay curious, we work to check our automatic assumptions and responses in our coaching model, replacing thosewith non-judgment, questions to understand and to prompt thinking, and affirmations and validations of what the student is sharing. While I worked (a lot!) on my implicit biases as a teacher, a large group setting is a difficult one for slowing down, asking questions, reflecting back what you’re hearing, and pointing out the fabulousness of the person’s learning journey. (While the Dropkick Murphys band leader did ask questions of the audience, they had to be close-ended, shorter response questions, not the open-ended ones to stimulate deepen thinking – similarly, he could praise the audience and I could praise middle school students, but not with the specificity possible in a one-on-one conversation organized to explore the other person’s knowledge and strengths.)

Center Their Strengths & Self-Knowledge

Matching the conversation to the rhythm of the person who is seeking to improve or finetune their time management or goal setting and centering that person’s self-knowledge and strengths (even when they might be reluctant initially to recognize those) is helpful for nervous system regulation and deep thinking. (Neither of which is the goal of a concert!) All too commonly, we don’t feel like we have time to connect like this or we get caught in the patterns and “autocomplete” functions of our own minds, so, typically, the coaching model requires building new skills or even – as in my case – unlearning habits for supporting others we already use. Because Academic Coaching is a 45 minute conversation in a quiet place, it’s easier to intentionally rewrite those habits there than in, say, a boisterous middle school classroom or a Moda Center concert.

Consider Options & Vibe in the Space

In Academic Coaching (and in the Academic Success Center’s drop-in space), we seek to be responsive and holistic, as well, offering Zoom as well as in-person appointments, a quieter space for the conversations, fidget toys, plants (biophilic design for the win!), and now have added gentler and more flexible lighting, tea, snacks, and art. We’ve also work on menus of grounding tools for ourselves and to share with those we work with (we’re even making a worksheet!) Academic support is by necessity more cerebral than SE practices intended to restore nervous system capacity, but we’re working to enhance our holistic approach and build out our skills.

The approaches described above all align with the way SE works, which is also based heavily on the person’s strengths and self-knowledge while also (like Academic Coaching) providing tools, practices, and pathways to shift patterns that aren’t working for the person. In SE, too, we are aware of how the physical space’s arrangement can impact someone’s experience and seek to provide options to meet folks’ sensory and psychological safety needs as they engage in growing their tools and capacity.

Offer Invitations & Choices

In both practices, we are invitational, providing genuine choices to the fabulous fellow humans we’re working with and offering example language and options when that’s helpful. In both practices, we believe that this person who we get to hold space for is Naturally Creative, Resourceful, and Whole. (As the International Coaching Federation says, read more here if you’d like!) Both in Academic Coaching and in somatic modalities, the goal is to help someone help themselves. Both are about helping people connect to their own strengths and wisdom, and to build on that.


The lead singer of Dropkick Murphys brings a level of energy and passion to his concert facilitation that I hope to emulate in my work as an Academic Coach and in my practice of somatic healing modalities. I have found these disciplines to be transformational for myself personally and for folks I have gotten to work with, much like the energy in the Moda Center was transformed when Dropkick Murphys took the stage. If you’re interested in connecting about any of this, I’d be thrilled to hear from you on Teams (email is also fine!) or in the physical or Zoom realms if we cross paths! Of course, if you’re intrigued, you can also tune in for the next “act” in this Somatic Experiencing, Academic Coaching, and Peer Education exploration!