Exploring EPPIs at 2020 AAC&U Annual Meeting

I recently had the honor of participating in a panel at the 2020 AAC&U Annual Meeting in Washington D.C. alongside Dr. Farouk Dey, Dr. William “Bill” Hudson Jr., and Dr. Angela LindnerDr. George Kuh moderated the session, which focused on the effects of Educationally Purposeful Peer Interactions (EPPIs).

To help explain how and why EPPIs matter to student learning and success, Dr. Kuh guided a discussion that featured three unique campus efforts and explored the role that technology can play in scaling these valuable interactions.

To set the stage, Dr. Kuh outlined the reasons why it is now more important than ever before to utilize the power of peers in higher education, noting that today’s students are different from previous cohorts and that the dynamic external environment requires a different kind of college education. It has long been known that one’s peers exert considerable influence on their college experience. According to Dr. Kuh, EPPIs are “an underutilized, cost-effective resource for enriching student learning and success.”

The Panelists

Before sharing some highlights from the discussion, here’s a brief overview of who was involved.

Dr. Farouk Dey

Dr. Farouk Dey is the Vice Provost for Integrative Learning & Life Design at Johns Hopkins University. Prior to taking on this brand new role aimed at “connecting students’ learning with life aspirations,” Dr. Dey worked as the Dean of Career and Experiential Education at Stanford University and the Director of Career and Professional Development at Carnegie Mellon. He is also experienced as an author, keynote speaker, and consultant. 

Dr. Dey is well known for his “Life Purpose Reconsidered” Ted Talk, which he delivered last March. At Johns Hopkins, he works within the framework of an integrated learning approach that focuses on “achieving equitable outcomes for all graduates by improving access to immersive experiences, advisory connections, and mentoring for all students regardless of background or social capital.” In order to do this, “transactional services will become ancillary, staff time is reoriented towards education, content development, and networks management, and impact is scaled using peer educators, alumni, and employers.”

Dr. William “Bill” Hudson Jr.

Dr. William “Bill” Hudson Jr. is the Vice President for Student Affairs at Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University. Prior to starting his journey at FAMU, Dr. Hudson worked as a Counselor, Advisor, and Associate Director of Academic Retention and Enhancement at Florida State University. He also worked as the Director of Retention at FAMU before taking on his current role, in which he is responsible for 26 different departments across the FAMU campus.

Dr. Hudson believes that “peer interactions enable students to gain academic and interpersonal support through shared experiences,” while also noting that they can “provide practical help.” In an effort to harness the power of EPPIs, Dr. Hudson championed a partnership with Knack to “provide a support system for students academically and interpersonally.” So far, he’s definitely noticing an impact, noting that “it’s exciting to see first-hand the value Knack is bringing to our campus. Not only is this proving to be an efficient model for supplementing our academic support services, but it’s also been a great way to scale the meaningful employment opportunities that help our students develop the skills they’ll need to be successful after graduation.”

Dr. Angela Lindner

Dr. Angela Lindner is the Associate Provost for Undergraduate Affairs at the University of Florida. Prior to embarking on a career in higher education, she worked as an engineer at the Environmental Protection Agency and for General Motors. For the past 22 years, Dr. Lindner has been a proud Gator, working as an Environmental Engineering Faculty Member and the Associate Dean for Engineering Student Affairs before assuming her current role, in which she is responsible for campus-wide “curriculum, student success, academic programs, and academic hospitality.”

Dr. Lindner is looking forward to the launch of her brand new initiative called UF Quest, which is “a shared general education, meaning-making program” that aims to take advantage of “intentional EPPIs.” She recognizes that “students gravitate to helping each other,” emphasizing that “this is not new” but colleges and universities are just now “catching up with students.”

The Discussion

Dr. Kuh opened up the discussion to take questions from the audience. Here are a few of the best exchanges.

How do you get students to buy in and participate?

Dr. Dey: So, what I’ll say, and it is a bit of a controversial point, is that we eliminated transactional services. It’s counterintuitive, but we had to go that direction. If we’re going for scale, then we’re no longer administering this program using the traditional one-on-one service, for example… The most frequently asked question I get is: “How do you define what happens in a life design counseling session?” There is none. We don’t do that. What we do is we embed people who are trained in life design in communities, in academic programs, etc… 

You can’t deliver life design one person at a time, but design works best when it’s designed one community at a time… So, it’s no longer a place to meet with someone to get services, but rather get content, connect with people, get some experiences, and develop some skills… That you are able to scale without having to double your resources.

How are you shifting the culture to encourage and support peers to engage more fully in EPPIs?

Dr. Hudson: For us, implementing this was something that was a priority of our provost and faculty. So you have champions that promote this kind of effort… Anything that will help our students to achieve — to have better graduation rates, better retention rates, and better persistence rates — they’re going to get behind. Make sure that everyone understands that we’re in this together, and our one goal is to help our students. 

Dr. Lindner: We’re creating a demand for this at UF. What does that mean? It means that faculty are fully engaged. I mentioned that we are starting this UF Quest program. We’ve been working on this for five years now, and when it is in its fullest form, every student will have a required experiential learning component… We’re pulling in our college of education faculty to teach students about learning… So, the faculty are fully engaged in it and they’re using their expertise to prepare the students. It’s not seen as a replacement. 

Dr. Dey: I’ve found that the message of equity has been a message that resonates with faculty and helps them understand the need to look beyond the traditional frameworks, boundaries, or obstacles that keep us from moving forward. I believe that the only way to really achieve equity is to scale… I need the larger community to contribute in order to do that, and I think I’ve had success in convincing faculty of that idea.

How do you ensure a smooth transition in building and launching a new initiative?

Dr. Lindner: We are grappling with that right now. It’s everybody’s job, but somebody’s got to lead somebody’s got to trigger it. So where does it come from? I’ll just say from the experience that we’ve had on our campus in the last five years, it’s been excruciating in terms of changing our general education into this program, UF quest. From my perspective, it takes administrators willing to absorb — absorb a lot of tension, a lot of stress coming from faculty, from students — being able to take that and hopefully transform it into a meaningful conversation on campus every moment of the day… I believe that we are in a state now where administrators need to repurpose ourselves into that consensus building model. 

I will tell you never would have believed this would have been the case two years ago, three years ago as we were going through these conversations about changing our humanities courses and building this model of sequential developmental for students. But, today, what has come as a result of that initial willingness to stand and take it is that faculty now own our general education on campus and there’s this sense of release and relief.

What’s Next?

In the coming weeks, Dr. Kuh will be leading discussions at several conferences with some of these same panelists. If you will be attending HIPs in the States or the University of South Florida’s National Student Success Conference, attend our session to learn more about EPPIs and their role in the landscape of higher education.