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USM Receives Major Grant to Help Students Succeed

The University of Southern Maine is one of 33 colleges and universities nationally, one of only three in New England and the only one in Maine, to receive a competitive U.S. Department of Education grant that will expand USM’s capacity to serve and graduate more students.

The grant of $1.6 million over five years was awarded through the Department of Education’s “Strengthening Institutions Program,” which was created to fund the establishment of enhanced learning opportunities that help more students stay in college and graduate.

“This is a game changer,” said USM President Theo Kalikow. “It will help us plug more students into campus life and complement that with experiential and off-campus learning opportunities so they can find their passions and earn a degree.”

A team chaired by Associate Provost for Undergraduate Education Dahlia Lynn spent more than a year writing and submitting the successful grant proposal. “We were successful,” said Lynn, “because of the work of many people over many years who have a passion for and interest in helping students succeed. Their work is reflected throughout this proposal.”

The grant proposal, titled First-Year Success Through Experience and Strength, or First STEPs, outlines four, interdependent “activities” designed to increase the retention rate of first-year students and the four-year graduation rate. The work outlined in the grant proposal also is designed to build partnerships among faculty and staff throughout the university and between USM and community stakeholders.   

The first activity is development of a strengths-based education program for all students. This program, which is used successfully at the University of Minnesota and many other institutions, trains faculty and staff to work with all first-year students to help them discover their individual strengths. Advising and other student services are then aligned and coordinated to help guide students into programs and activities that help them develop those strengths.  

The development and delivery of what’s referred to as “high-impact educational practices” are the foundations of the second activity. Those practices include interdisciplinary and cross-curricula courses, learning communities, immersive experiences and the placement of more students in internships, practica, student teaching and other types of fieldwork situations that have been shown to improve student engagement and achievement.

The third activity is the enhancement of faculty development programs and support for the USM Faculty Commons, an initiative to provide physical and virtual space where faculty can collaborate on professional development activities and issues related to their teaching, research, scholarship and creative activities. Those enhancements will provide a range of services to help faculty redesign and develop academic course offerings that incorporate high-impact practices; establish Faculty Interest Groups and grants to explore effective teaching and learning practices and course delivery; and the scheduling of university-wide symposia to share best practices designed to improve student achievement.  

The fourth activity calls for the widespread use of electronic tools to improve university-wide academic scheduling and the delivery of advising and related student services.

Performances indicators have been assigned to all four activities. For example, it’s projected that by the end of the grant period the implementation of a strengths-based education program will have improved the fall-to-fall retention of first-year students from 66.5 to 74.5 percent.

“We have many areas of excellence in this university that employ many of the practices identified in this grant and many faculty who do an extraordinary job of focusing on students’ needs,” said Lynn. “We need to build on their efforts and be more intentional about how we integrate those practices into the life of the university. This grant will help us work to ensure that every student who comes here has the opportunity to identify their strengths, nurture those strengths in and out of the classroom and apply them to their life’s work. We have an opportunity over the next five years to build and solidify our reputation around the nature and quality of the student experience.”