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Vol Success Teams: Transforming the First-Year Experience at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville

In 2020, the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s Division of Student Success (DSS), led by Vice Provost Amber Williams, unveiled its groundbreaking Vol Success Teams program. This innovative initiative has revolutionized the support and guidance offered to first-year and transfer scholars embarking on their educational journey at UT.

With an unwavering commitment to student success, the dynamic Vol Success Teams program provides an unparalleled support system, pairing each incoming student scholar with a dedicated trio of experts: an academic advisor, an academic coach, and a One Stop counselor. 

Together, these skilled professionals collaborate to create an enriching and seamless first-year experience, laying a strong foundation for the student scholars’ academic pursuits at UT.

To gain deeper insights into the day-to-day operations of Vol Success Teams, we had the privilege of speaking with professionals from each of the three areas that constitute this transformative program. Through these conversations, we discovered consistent themes that underscore why Vol Success Teams are such a success:

  • A focus on partnership and fostering connections between students and various offices on campus.
  • A holistic advising model that encompasses academic planning, self-exploration, career exploration, and experiential learning.
  • The successful establishment of a welcoming and supportive environment during virtual advising sessions, utilizing platforms like Zoom.
  • Building and maintaining personalized relationships with students throughout their college journey.
  • The positive impact of personalized advising and continuity of support on student success and graduation rates.

Let’s further explore these themes below and discover how they contribute to the overall success and well-being of students within the Vol Success Teams program.

The Role of Academic Advisors: Nurturing Success through Compassionate Guidance

In the journey of higher education, students often encounter challenges and critical decisions that shape their academic and professional paths. Academic advisors play a vital role during these moments by providing guidance and support. 

“Advising’s teaching in a lot of ways,” said Ashleigh Powers, Coordinator of Academic Advising, Department of Psychology. “A lot of what we do is helping them (students) understand the tools that are available to them, teaching them to use that. It’s a partnership. We’re monitoring their degree progress and helping them, assisting them with that, but ultimately they’re the ones that register for themselves and we want them to take ownership of the choices they make.”

At UT, advisors are not only problem-solvers but also mentors who understand students’ dreams and aspirations, helping them find alternative pathways when faced with obstacles. They act as facilitators in creating a supportive environment that ensures students’ success.

“I like to say that advising is both an art and a science,” said Laura Trainer, an advisor coordinator in the Haslam College of Business. “The science of it is you’ve got this list of requirements: how do we get through these? The art of it is there are gray areas sometimes. There are things that I have to interpret. Sometimes you have to look at something another way. There’s problem solving, and I think that’s where I probably get the most satisfaction is (if) a student is having an issue, they’re really freaked out about it, they’re panicked, and they’re able to email me and say, ‘OK, I’m panicked, I need help.’ And we talk about it and they’re like, ‘OK, I feel better.’ I think having that connection of somebody that they trust to say, ‘Everything’s gonna be OK or, all right, this isn’t ideal, but we’ll figure something out.’ I think that they just appreciate that they’ve got someone who’s kind of advocating for them.”

The connections established between advisors and students often transcend the initial freshman orientation and persist as advisors become enthusiastic supporters throughout their students’ entire academic journey. 

“I ran into a student at Starbucks the other day and student was like, ‘I’m graduating because of you'” explained Ms. Powers. “It’s so gratifying when students say things like that because it’s nice to have folks who feel like you’ve been along and been a part of their journey.”

Stories like this illustrate the profound impact of the relationships formed within the Vol Success Teams program.

They exemplify the genuine care and dedication that advisors have for their students, going above and beyond to support and assist them throughout their college journey while also making meaningful connections forged through transformative experiences that help shape student outcomes.

Also worth noting; Ms. Powers made mention of highlighting the positive aspects of virtual advising, such as the ability to build relationships, create a welcoming environment, and establishing a personalized atmosphere during advising sessions.

She noted how the technology aspects of Zoom, such as screen-sharing and seeing students’ pets and personal spaces, helped create a comfortable and personalized atmosphere for advising sessions.

During our conversations we discovered that for some advisors, the essence of academic advising lies in connecting the dots and guiding students through their educational puzzle to achieve their goals. These advisors reveled in synthesizing vast amounts of information and pivoting seamlessly to adapt to students’ unique needs. 

Other advisors focus on providing personalized guidance, ensuring students are on track to achieve their goals, and cultivating a culture of trust and support among the advising team. Moreover, university administration’s recognition of the critical role academic advisors play in shaping students’ experiences and future careers has also motivated the advisors to excel in their roles.

Over the past few years, UT has seen a steady rise in student retention, with an impressive 89% retention rate for the class from fall 2021 to fall 2022. This achievement is a testament to the university’s commitment to student success and the tireless efforts of its academic advisors.

One Stop Counselors: Comprehensive Support to Alleviate Student Stress and Barriers

The One Stop Counseling team at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville serves as a guiding light for students and families, offering a centralized support system to navigate the complexities of university life. These counselors play an instrumental role in alleviating stress and barriers that students may encounter. 

Understanding that each student’s situation is unique, the counselors are prepared to assist with a wide range of challenges, from academic performance concerns to financial aid adjustments based on changing circumstances.

“I think there’s just so much that One Stop actually does,” said Meghann Overholt, Assistant Director for One Stop. “Our counselors are such a great resource, because we are able to see the bigger picture. I can talk to students about their financial aid, but I’ll also know how this impacts their billing and how this impacts their enrollment with university. We’re able to see how all the things connect together.”

One story in particular that Ms. Overholt shared illuminated exactly how these dots are all interconnected. 

While conducting a quality assurance review of a student-counselor interaction, She noticed a discrepancy in the student’s financial records. 

Despite having a scholarship in the previous year, the scholarship was missing in the student’s current year without any apparent reason or documentation. Fueled by a passion for problem-solving and armed with extensive experience, Ms. Overholt delved deeper into the matter.

Through meticulous research and investigation, it was confirmed that the student was indeed eligible for the scholarship. Without hesitation, she reached out to the concerned parties, rectifying the situation promptly. As a result, the student was awarded the scholarship, providing them with much-needed financial support that did not require additional loans.

The discovery is just one of many shining examples of the commitment of Ms. Overholt and One Stop Counselors to maintain the highest standards for the division, and making every effort to support students in their pursuit of academic and personal growth.

Academic Coaches: Fostering Well-Being and Academic Success

Academic coaches within the Vol Success Teams program play a pivotal role in supporting students’ holistic well-being and academic achievement. Their commitment extends beyond addressing academic challenges, as they actively engage with students on personal matters to foster a healthy work-life balance. 

By providing guidance on well-being, setting boundaries, and prioritizing self-care, academic coaches empower students to navigate the pressures of college life and develop essential life skills.

Kelli Frawley, an Academic Coach at the Academic Success Center, highlighted the immediate relief experienced by students after a coaching session, as they develop a clear plan of action and experience a newfound sense of lightness. 

“Typically by the end of each session, the student will say, ‘Wow, that was such a relief. I feel so much better now,'” said Ms. Frawley. “You can just kind of sense a lightness in them. They come in tense and like shoulders squared up and really like in a frenzy, and then they’ll walk out and be like, ‘Awesome. I know what my next steps are. I know my plan now.’ That is so satisfying. It’s so fun to help students.”

Ms. Frawley shared a particularly inspiring example of a student who initially struggled with feeling overwhelmed that also coincided with mental health challenges. Through the combined efforts of academic coaching and connecting the student with appropriate mental health resources, she witnessed significant improvement in the student’s overall well-being, prioritization of self-care, and development of vital boundary-setting skills.

“When I saw them in (the) spring semester around midterm, they were just doing so much better,” Ms. Frawley said. “They were like, ‘I’ve prioritized wellbeing so much more. We talked about me saying no to people and setting boundaries — I’m really working on that. I’m working on putting myself first.’ It’s incredibly satisfying to see students go from being really overwhelmed and maybe not doing so hot to being like, ‘Okay, I feel in control and I want to prioritize myself.'”

As a graduate of UT, Ms. Frawley’s personal experience and commitment to students’ success shines through in her coaching approach. The dedication to nurturing well-rounded individuals is evident in the emphasis academic coaches place on work-life balance and mental health support. 

By instilling these values early in students’ academic journeys, the team ensures they are equipped with the necessary skills to thrive academically, personally, and professionally.

A Collaborative Triumph for Student Success

The Vol Success Teams program at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville has proven to be a collaborative triumph, uniting academic advisors, One Stop counselors, and academic coaches to create an unparalleled support system. 

With a focus on partnership, holistic advising, personalized support, and the seamless integration of virtual platforms, this program has redefined the first-year experience for student scholars at the university.

By fostering connections, nurturing well-being, and guiding students throughout their college journey, the Vol Success Teams have contributed to UT’s impressive student retention rates. The university’s commitment to student success and the tireless efforts of its dedicated professionals have established UT as a thriving and student-centric institution.

As the Vol Success Teams continue to empower and uplift students, UT stands at the forefront of student success initiatives, setting a new standard for universities nationwide.