Strengths-based approach gains momentum at Virginia Tech
During this summer’s orientation sessions, incoming students were introduced to a new concept -- one that is rapidly becoming a part of Virginia Tech culture and one may have the potential to profoundly influence how students learn, how they view themselves, and how they relate to others.
Virginia Tech is the first university to partner with Gallup Inc. to make the Clifton StrengthsFinder assessment tool available to all students, faculty, and staff. With the launch of the Discovering Your Strengths Web portal this summer, anyone at Virginia Tech can take the assessment, identify their strengths, learn how to use them, and develop goals and action plans based on the results.
“The strengths approach is about looking at potential and helping humans be their best selves – engaged, productive, and thoughtful,” said Frank Shushok Jr., senior associate vice president for student affairs. “It gives us the language to talk about our strengths, develop them into real competencies, affirm others with different gifts, and determine how we might collectively use our diverse strengths to meet a community’s or a world’s needs.”
Shushok’s interest in the strengths-based philosophy predates his arrival at Virginia Tech in 2009.
In the 2006 article, What’s Right with You: Helping Students Find and Use Their Personal Strengths, Shushok and co-author Eileen Hulme advocated that higher education “move away from a disposition toward studying the least successful to a focus on understanding students who are fulfilled, accomplished, and, most important, learning.”
In other words: while fixing weaknesses prevents failure, it is strengths-building that promotes success.
“Gallup research in education and in the workplace proves that organizations focused on the strengths – opposed to weaknesses – of their students or employees have far greater success on nearly every key performance indicator we have studied,” said Brandon H. Busteed, executive director of Gallup Education.
Encouraging students to understand their strengths also creates a deeper understanding of diversity, complementary strengths, and human interdependence, said Eric K. Kaufman, faculty principal for the Honors Residential College at East Ambler Johnston.
“Strong communities depend upon trust and reciprocity,” Kaufman said. “The strengths philosophy promotes this environment, because we can each better identify and embrace our unique talents and ability to contribute to the community. The richness of the community is in the differences that we all bring, and the Clifton StrengthFinder helps to highlight some of those differences that might otherwise be overlooked.”
Some sectors of the Virginia Tech community have been quick to adopt the strengths approach. Career Services has incorporated strengths-based advising and assessment in its work with students for the past three years. “When students understand and can articulate their strengths, they are more likely to discover work they find engaging and fulfilling,” said Becca Heterick Scott, senior assistant director for career resources.
Others have taken more convincing. Ben Romano of Hillsborough, New Jersey, a junior majoring in chemical engineering in the College of Engineering and a resident advisor, approached the exercise with skepticism.
“I will admit that at first, I was not too sure about the validity of StrengthsFinder,” said Romano. “It took me a while to understand that I could use my strengths to learn more about my residents, gather information about how to build relationships effectively, and lead a group of residents to be their best. I encourage everyone to take StrengthsFinder. It's changed my outlook on leadership and life.”
A crucial part of the process is putting the knowledge to work in real life situations, by exposing students to groups and situations in which their strengths can best be expressed.
“Students are encouraged when they know they can contribute,” said Shushok.
As house supervisor for Delta Tau Delta fraternity last year, recent graduate Neal Moriconi spearheaded an initiative to transform his fraternity through strengths.
“It did so much for our communication,” Moriconi said. “It helped us make decisions and understand different perspectives. It helped us look at where our organization was going, to consider the ‘what-ifs,’ how we could shape the future, and how we could make a difference.”
Now living in Raleigh, North Carolina, and working as a systems engineer for Cerner, a health care information technology company, Moriconi said, “'Strengths' is an integral part of who I am now. It allows you to embody self-understanding and integrity in the best possible way.”
Written by Sandy Broughton.