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CAEL Pathways Blog

The Latino Adult Student Success Academy and The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley: Perspectives From a Participant

This is part of a blog series on the second Latino Adult Student Success Academy. 

Dr. Leslie Jones is the executive director of student success for The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, where she oversees the university's learning center and its academic coaching for excellence program. Prior to her current leadership role, she spent 12 years as a faculty member. With a master's degree in education and a doctorate in curriculum and instruction, Jones has applied a strong interest in educational psychology and an even stronger empathy for students to her faculty and staff roles. 

"The majority of our students are first generation and Pell Grant recipients," she said. "This is really where I developed a passion for understanding barriers to learning and what supports are best put in place to help them become self-regulatory and independent learners.”

That passion developed over her 12 years teaching and diligently redesigning courses to fit the individual needs of her students. Today, it is reflected in her work designing and developing entire learner success programs. Both perspectives made Jones an ideal choice to lead UTRGV's participation in CAEL's Latino Adult Student Success (LASS) Academies. 

As a teacher, Jones developed a front-line sense of the student population and the barriers they faced. "We are primarily a commuter university," she said, noting that the student population, which is 92% Latino, mirrors the university's community. Her experience revealed the reality that most of her students were adult learners -- if not from belonging to a traditional age range, then because of bearing a range of nontraditional responsibilities.

"I would consider a lot of our non-adult learners students nontraditional students,” said Jones. “A good portion of them work. A good portion of them also take care of family members. A majority of them are first generation. They may not know how to navigate higher education. So there's an opportunity for us to provide support to our students to fill that gap."

Contrasting her experiences in the inaugural LASS Academy with the work she is doing during the current cohort, Jones said she and her colleagues have been able to more fully capture the many networking opportunities the Academy model offers. She attributes this advantage to the momentum that naturally builds when successful programs are given enough time to mature. "I definitely believe if we're going to put in the time to design and develop a program, it needs to be sustained, and if possible scaled," she said. "When we were given the opportunity to continue our work in the second LASS cohort, it opened doors and provided a whole new range of opportunities.” 

Jones said that the Academy is encouraging participants to be collaborative both across their institutions and with peers at fellow institutional participants. "It is easy to go down a rabbit hole, especially when you're trying to design something and you're really paying attention to the specific issues and barriers your students are facing," she said. "But being part of the network and hearing other perspectives or approaches helps to encourage additional innovation about the bigger picture."

For example, Jones said that an Academy convening provided a forum in which she could compare how another institution is enhancing its academic coaching, a focal point for UTRGV's own Academy work. "Because they are taking such a different approach, I feel like there's a lot that we can learn from that," she said. "Maybe they've thought of something, or they've learned something from their students, that we haven't."

A longtime champion of academic coaching, Jones had proposed a program in 2016. But neither the timing nor funding were aligned at the time, she said. That all changed with the LASS Academy. "When Rafael Pasillas [CAEL's senior director of higher education initiatives] reached out and said, 'What do you think about taking your idea about academic coaching and partnering with the LASS Academy's technical support?' that was just an amazing opportunity," she said. "And it has been more far-reaching than I ever would have anticipated."

CAEL's fellow Strada Collaborative member InsideTrack is providing that technical support. It would be hard to assign a more apt partner. InsideTrack is a pioneer in using coaching to improve educational outcomes including enrollment, persistence, completion, and career readiness. Since 2001, the nonprofit has provided direct coaching to more than 3.2 million learners. 

InsideTrack's technical support includes training UTRGV personnel in coaching. Jones completed the training alongside her coaching colleagues, who include staff and graduate students. 

"Because I tend to be in a position where I'm giving more direction rather than asking questions, I've learned a lot in terms of the impact coaching is having with our students and on my work with colleagues," said Jones, describing the experience of reversing her traditional role of leading such discussions. She credits the coaching training for shifting her focus away from making assumptions and toward asking questions that help her better understand the perspectives of colleagues and students. The process also helped inspire a train-the-trainer model for scaling the impact of academic coaching to more learners at UTRGV.

As Jones entered the second LASS Academy with a focus on coaching, Jones realized success would require support from diverse areas of the university. "If we're really going to make an impact for this population of students, it's not going to happen through one program, and it's not going to happen in one department," she said. She had developed many strong connections through her time at the university, but participating in the LASS Academy was an opportunity to make more. "As we think about what issues and what barriers our students are facing, and as we learn from them, even going forward, I'm adding to this team," she said of the Academy participants.  

Among the departments they represent are recruitment, the academic advising center, the career center, financial aid, and counseling. Insight from CAEL's Adult Learner 360 guided the composition of what Jones has branded the Academic Coaching for Excellence Success Team. The parallel surveys of students, faculty, and staff helped identify performance gaps between student experiences and institutional perceptions. "Bringing in experts from other departments helped us address the issues students shared with us and ultimately get them through their academic journey in a timely manner and in a successful way," said Jones.

Jones stressed that an understanding of the student experience is something that transcends number crunching. "I think institutionally we tend to look at data and how we can fill gaps," she said. "I think that's very powerful. But I think that it's important to have the context or the narrative that helps define that data. And that comes from the student voice and from understanding those individual experiences, because learning is an individualized journey."

Jones sees a deference to individual needs ingrained within the LASS Academy philosophy. "It's provided opportunities that we don't normally get to experience," she said. "I've been a part of other consortiums and cohorts, but CAEL provides the networking opportunity to learn from other teams at other institutions while also supporting each institution's individual approach to working with their populations.

"The missions of CAEL and their project partners align very nicely. Their approach is a team approach in terms of supporting those implementing the initiatives. It's a fantastic model, and I would definitely encourage others to participate."

Visit cael.org for more information about CAEL's student success academy model and the LASS academy.

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