Category Archives: Spring 2024 Issue 2

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.