skip to main content
University of Southern Maine: Going All in With CliftonStrengths

University of Southern Maine: Going All in With CliftonStrengths

Learn how the school uses CliftonStrengths to make a positive impact on student engagement

by Becky McCarville

The University of Southern Maine first introduced CliftonStrengths to its students, faculty and staff in 2012 as one of several initiatives intended to increase first-year students' retention rates by transforming USM into a strengths-based culture. From the beginning, the program's leaders knew that to maximize the potential of CliftonStrengths, they needed to implement it as a universitywide program. Armed with a five-year, Title III grant through the U.S. Department of Education, they were confident about the positive impact CliftonStrengths could have on student engagement.

One of the program leaders, USM Strengths Coordinator Jen Hart, notes that when talking about student engagement in higher education, retention undoubtedly enters the conversation.

"We're really trying to look at shifting the needle for the first-year experience for students," she explains. "And, we're aware that to shift the culture, it needs to be a bit larger than one cohort of student groups."

To that end, the program's leaders considered areas where CliftonStrengths could gain traction with faculty and academic departments. The advising and career services departments offer direct avenues to talk to students about CliftonStrengths.

For example, advisors introduce new students to CliftonStrengths language and concepts during 90-minute, one-on-one advising sessions. Students identify a personal success, and the advisor weaves in the language of strengths.

When it comes to career services, internships serve as a "reflective moment for students to think about how they see their personal strengths being applied in the internship setting and then reflecting on their future career goals," Hart says.

Elsewhere on campus, USM incorporates CliftonStrengths in courses ranging from nursing to leadership to environmental science, in departments such as residential life and sports management, and in professional development opportunities for faculty and staff.

Measuring Success

USM leaders consider multiple variables when measuring the success of the program, and one of them is retention. In a past-year report, according to Hart, USM has seen a modest uptick in retention of the student population for the first-year experience. Results from a qualitative survey conducted every semester show that there has been an increase in students reporting they've had conversations with faculty about strengths. And 80% of students identified they were moderately or extremely confident in their ability to apply their strengths to their work or school.

"We've been pretty cognizant of figuring out ways of engaging students in the conversation, and one of the ways is integrating [CliftonStrengths] with faculty in the classroom," Hart says. "This movement has really taken root and integrated into our work with students."

Dan Jenkins, Ph.D., USM's director and assistant professor of leadership and organizational studies, was surprised by some of the unanticipated effects of using CliftonStrengths on campus.

"It's interesting that we came in focusing on the students, but then there are these ancillary benefits," he says, alluding to the various other groups positively affected by the program's efforts.

Jenkins and Hart's program includes holding workshops and strengths training with the university's entire foundation team, the admissions department, a team that is doing work around violence against women -- and the list goes on. With many different stakeholders across campus, the program has brought positive change to the student population and to various teams and departments.

"It has taken awhile to create this culture, but now we're at this point where over 3,000 students, faculty and staff have done this with multiple touch points and different types of programs that they've been engaged with in some type of strengths programming," Jenkins explains.

Staying in Your Swim Lane

Jenkins mentions a key discovery when talking about Southern Maine's transformation into a university that uses CliftonStrengths in many different areas and departments: the importance of avoiding duplication of activities.

He cautions that students don't want to have the same strengths programming over and over again. "This has to be one of the primary points of conversation with our strengths advisory team."

USM's CliftonStrengths leadership team took that advice from Gallup experts during the early stages of developing the school's initiative. Instead of implementing the same programming in all areas of the university, they apply various approaches to complement the unique experiences that students have in different areas across campus, using "swim lanes" as a metaphor.

According to Jenkins, this approach allows the team to target strategic questions to faculty and staff who are implementing CliftonStrengths outreach: What are your anticipated outcomes? Are you trying to build a better team or build strengths awareness? Are the students or groups looking for better study skills?

"We're intentional with the type of programming we do in each of those 'swim lanes,'" he explains. "We realize what is effective in each context and what's going to be less effective or inappropriate."

I Know My CliftonStrengths. Now What?

Although discovering one's strengths through the CliftonStrengths assessment can help students identify their unique qualities, learning how to apply them can lead to personal growth and development.

Last summer Jenkins and Hart, along with five other faculty and staff members, attended Gallup's Accelerated Strengths Coaching course. In addition to qualifying to become Gallup-Certified Strengths Coaches, completing the course gave them a closer look at how to implement proven techniques for coaching individuals at USM to experience positive personal growth via CliftonStrengths development.

While their program at USM has a dedicated leadership team immersed in CliftonStrengths and comfortable with strengths language and application, Jenkins, Hart and their peers realized during the four-day course that there are many ways to think about CliftonStrengths and apply the concepts to benefit their students and others on campus.

"We left knowing so much more about how to integrate [CliftonStrengths] and be more effective with teams and students -- and certainly the coaching aspect," Jenkins says.

To take CliftonStrengths to the next level at USM, the team developed a "train the trainer" program to teach others how to be more proficient in delivering CliftonStrengths -- whether within the classroom, during student life activities or in tutoring. Since last summer, the USM attendees of the Accelerated Strengths Coaching course meet monthly to create curriculum. They hope to pilot it in the next few months.

"That we're trying to help people build on things that they're good at and build awareness and practice of this has been really powerful for me as a professional," Hart notes as she reflects on the implications of positive psychology. "Strengths is really the boots on the ground for positive psychology -- putting this idea and concept into practice and making it tangible for people."

This content first appeared in the Strengths Insights Newsletter -- subscribe today!