Our commitment to providing every UConn student with a life-transformative education begins with an intentional and systemic effort to bring together myriad opportunities for students to build authentic, supportive relationships and to make an impact on real-world problems by applying what they’ve learned in the classroom. A team of visionary leaders from all levels of the university will lead their peers in creating grassroots, bottom-up change with institutional support to make life-transformative education the foundation of UConn’s educational philosophy.

Catalyzing an Inclusive Culture for Life-Transformative Education at UConn: A Roadmap to Scale Across the University

The University of Connecticut is committed to providing all its students with a life-transformative education to prepare them to meet the challenges of the 21st century. To this purpose, a team of visionary leaders from all levels of the university will be prepared to lead their peers in creating grassroots, bottom-up change with institutional support. The goal is to make life-transformative education the foundation of UConn’s educational philosophy.

Imagine that, when asked the question, “Why are you working here at UConn?” every one of the over 1,400 faculty and 4,500 staff could answer that they are here to help transform the lives of UConn’s undergraduate students. UConn, a comprehensive research university, identifies the centrality of strong and meaningful relationships as the catalyst to create the conditions for every undergraduate student to have life transformative experiences.  At UConn we believe relationships are the vehicle through which agency, identity, and purpose are best developed. We also believe that we need to be more intentional and systemic in the ways we do this.  Students need the opportunity to become inspired and informed in a range of contexts -- in their classes and in environments that are integral to their experience, such as independent research, internships, and experiential learning opportunities. UConn’s goal is to emphasize and foster the growth of diverse opportunities for students to experience exceptional education inside and outside the classroom, such as through innovative classes that incorporate real-world research elements or service-learning components, as well as potential expansion of first-year programming beyond the first year, strategically expanding novel learning community experiences, among many other possibilities.

This project has several sets of participants, including:

  • In the first phase of this project, a team of approximately 150 life-transformative educators, including faculty and staff, will participate in an initial day-long collaborative workshop in spring 2020, with a follow-up series of peer-led groups. This coalition will form the central “who” of our project; will create a long-term vision and ideas for what life-transformative education means at UConn. This group will become the centrifugal force of change.
  • After this first phase, the project’s goal is effect change by inspiring and empowering life-transformative educators at all levels of the university to embrace this opportunity and to provide grassroots leadership for change.

Working with recommendations from the Deans, the Provost Office will concurrently launch a taskforce on life-transformative education. The taskforce will include faculty and staff who are recognized for their leadership, creativity, and innovation in the life-transformative education space. Specifically, the taskforce will be charged with identifying areas where UConn is already strong and where it can improve, as well as recommending the bold new areas to extend a life-transformative educational experience to all 24,000 UConn undergraduate students. The taskforce will then suggest specific working groups, which will include taskforce members along with additional faculty and staff selected depending on the specific working group focus. The taskforce and working groups will work in parallel and will inform this proposed project, and many of the taskforce and working group committee members will participate in the spring collaborative workshop activities.

As a public land grant university with many researchers working on projects with direct positive social outcomes in Connecticut and beyond, students develop their sense of purpose through the ability to engage with fields as wide ranging as educational psychology, gerontological nursing, civil engineering, corporate social responsibility, public humanities, and environmental sustainability. For example, building off of three years of a combination of research, teaching and civic engagement, a team of faculty members recently received a 5-year National Science Foundation Improving Undergraduate STEM Education grant for a project entitled: “Redefining Public Engagement at the University of Connecticut: Studying the Impact of an Innovative STEM Service Learning Model on the University Community.” The project, “Environment Corps,” combines familiar elements of classroom instruction, service learning, and UConn’s Extension’s work with communities across Connecticut in a unique way that allows students to develop STEM skills and get “real-world” experience as preparation for the workforce, while communities receive assistance in responding to environmental mandates that they often lack resources to address on their own. As part of the grant, UConn is working to better understand how innovative instructional models and partnerships like this can be institutionalized. The Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning is taking the lead in working with University administrators and faculty to promote further expansion of the model across the university (see: https://today.uconn.edu/school-stories/uconn-receives-nsf-grant-environment-corps-project/).

Our problem is not a lack of life-transformative educational experiences at UConn. We know that there are a number of areas of excellence across the university, such as the example above. Individual professors and programs are deeply committed to this type of educational experience.  UConn’s challenge is to effectively extend and scale life-transformative educational experiences so that every single one of its 24,000 undergraduate students at UConn graduates having had such an experience. To go from good to great, we have to catalyze our culture in gradual and not-so-gradual ways simultaneously. We have to expand the quantity and variety of our best existing programs.  We have to develop new programs by “listening louder” to our students, our alumni, our communities, and converting what we hear into actionable reciprocal impacts for those involved.

We know that a top-down model will not be successful in this endeavor. Making life-transformative education yet another “thing” that is added on to current work will fail. Instead, we will use this funding to empower those who are already leading on life-transformative education at UConn to become a catalyst for the growth of a life-transformative educational culture that will touch and inspire everyone at UConn.

The core of this culture is two areas that faculty and staff feel are fundamentally valued and an intrinsic part of the why of UConn:

  • Developing authentic and supportive relationships with students. This can take the form of mentoring and will exist in multiple locations, including:
    • Residential programs for students (e.g., learning communities) that also foster a sense of belonging within student groups.
    • Relationships with individual advisors who help support students through their educational experiences and anchor them securely within the institution.
    • Mentorship from faculty, staff, alumni, and peers.
  • Extending the opportunity for all undergraduate students to participate in learning experiences that develop agency and purpose. This will include:
    • Small service-learning classes spanning the curriculum, with students able to connect their educational experiences to solving real-world social problems. This will be connected to our re-application for the Carnegie Foundation Community Engagement Classification.
    • Opportunities for undergraduate students to work directly on research projects of world-class faculty members.
    • Internship opportunities that directly and carefully connect educational content in the classroom to “real world” learning.

None of these elements in and of itself is necessarily experimental; we know that they are sound routes through which to practice life-transformative education. The problem that we seek to address is how to create a framework in which life-transformative education can truly take hold for every student on a large public university campus with no diminution of the research mission -- instead our aim is to find a way in which life-transformative education becomes synonymous with the research mission of the university and genuinely valued in the same way.

The boldness of our plan is the overall goal for engaging literally everyone who works at UConn in providing and supporting life-transformative education. We begin with two separate elements: 1) areas of excellence in which life-transformative education is already happening, and 2) the faculty and staff who are disengaged from this type of undergraduate-focused experience. There are serious barriers to our goal, particularly the hesitancy of those who are suspicious of administration-led initiatives and those who think that providing time for life-transformative experiences will diminish the research mission of the university or will pull time away from activities valued in the Promotion, Tenure and Reappointment (PTR) process. To prevent this initiative from becoming yet another element that university faculty and staff are supposed to add on to already robust workloads, it has to be developed as a peer-led iterative process supported by institutional resources for life-transformative education.

Our project is an experimentation in large-scale culture change. Although a large number of areas of excellence already exist within our institution, this project will be sustainable only if we can cultivate an authentic route for peer-led, grassroots development, supported by the leadership of the university. To achieve this, we propose to utilize two different models to create a framework for change that we can help support and nurture without micromanaging or being overly directive.

This “bottom up” approach will already provide contextual awareness because we will be empowering a cadre of life-transformative educators to develop processes and models that are specific to our institution.

    • Defining the problem with the community will be part of the deep discussions of our taskforce and work groups.
    • Our 2020 collaborative workshop will provide the opportunity to reflect and discover existing practices or behaviors.
    • Our taskforce and leaders will look for ways to design peer-to-peer initiatives to leverage solutions that help scale up life-transformative education at UConn.
    • We will discern the effectiveness of our process through continual monitoring and evaluation.
    • Our model for others, therefore, does not lie in just the end result when we have life-transformative educators in every corner of the institution; it is instead in the process of engaging faculty and staff in developing their own, “community-led” solutions to the scalability of life-transformative education.


    Cultivating Culture Change: An Initial Event

    To initiate our long-term vision and process, we will develop a professional development collaborative workshop. This will be a flagship event: life-transformative educators who are already active at UConn will be able to come together and be inspired by external and internal speakers. The event will include some intensive short work sessions with others from across our large and often disconnected institution (schools and colleges, regional campuses, departments, student affinity groups, learning communities, etc.) to define their own ideas of what we can do to foster an ever-greater availability of life-transformative educational experiences. It will be formed of two main elements:

    • Listening Louder: we will work to make sure that the crucial knowledge for scaling-up life-transformative education across our institution is right there within the participants. Instead of just bombarding them with external ideas, we want to use the smaller sessions to focus on a theme of listening. The faculty and staff we will bring together are already life-transformative educators - our challenge to them is how to spread this further across the campus and, as administrative leaders, we will be listening to them.
    • Empowering Ideas: We will bring a visionary external leader in life-transformative education to speak to our first team of leaders to help empower them in their own community. We want to provide a scaffold of ideas and networks that can help our UConn grassroots community realize their own vision.

    When they leave this event, we want our initial cohort of life-transformative educators to feel excitement at the possibilities for expanding their work at UConn and spreading their approaches to their peers. We want them to feel an urgency for the mission and to have developed the beginnings of networks that will form a genuine guiding coalition. Approximately 150 participants will be included in the initial collaborative workshop. Our life-transformative education taskforce and administrative leadership will take an active role in engaging department heads, deans, and managers across campus to identify participants for this first round. To be successful, this first cohort must be formed of those who are deeply passionate about life-transformative education and who are ready to be empowered to accelerate their work by building it out to peers.

    Creating a Visible Community of Leaders

    After this initial event, the risk is that our change champions dissipate into the larger UConn community. To truly cultivate change, this initial group must be charged with an urgent mission to grow their numbers. If we have 150 faculty and staff participate in our first major event, we will still only have involved 2.5% of the workforce at UConn. Involving 10% of faculty and staff requires that each of our first wave of leaders engages three of their peers. Each participant in this first event will be asked to mentor a colleague in life-transformative education across the next year and to bring at least two other colleagues along to small-group meetings.

    To help facilitate this, we want to make them into a visible “brand” of leaders.  It is fundamental that these leaders are easy to identify by both faculty and students. Beyond this, we want to introduce new awards at convocation and other major university events to help lift up some of our strongest leaders in this field to help further develop the sense that this is something that is recognized and rewarded at our university. The life-transformative education taskforce will work on larger ideas for recognition and support.

    A series of small-group, reflective events will occur throughout the year and will be an opportunity for our life-transformative education leaders to invite and engage interested peers. The frequency of these small groups will be such as not to become a burden and to yet offer regular opportunities to maintain momentum and incrementally build community. An annual event will provide a dynamic and exciting opportunity for reflection, assessment, and sharing of successes.

    Timelines and Milestones

    • Task force created (November 2019)
    • Working groups established (December 2019) and meeting regularly
    • Communication channels created (website and email, LTE@uconn.edu)
    • Call for workshop attendees sent out (February, 2020)
    • Announcement of initial group of life-transformative leaders (March 2020)
    • September 25, 2020 ‘Cultivate’ workshop: UConn President Katsouleas, Clayton Spencer, President Bates College (keynote), Rick Miller, President Olin College of Engineering (facilitator)
    • Interim task force report to President Katsouleas (October 2020)

    Conversations on Life-Transformative Education (VIDEO)