Leann Hunter meets with a Passport Program student.
Leeann Hunter, left, meets with a Passport Program student.

Leeann Hunter vividly recalls sitting in her fourth grade English class, petrified by a teacher’s question, feeling overwhelmed and unequipped to move forward. Her own experience as a child of deaf parents left her emotionally isolated and helpless as a young student. At the time, Hunter had a tough time imagining she could ever finish fourth grade, let alone earn a doctorate degree and teach university students.

“There were lots of things silencing me,” Hunter says. “How does someone move from a little kid, unable to answer a question, to a faculty member in English literature? Everything in between becomes a part of that story.”

Hunter is excited to see her students tell their stories, and pursue their dreams by gaining skills and confidence. She developed the Passport Program to impact students holistically and help them develop an outlook for long-term success. Hunter hatched the program in spring of 2016, and expanded it in 2016-17 as part of her leadership project for the Provost’s Leadership Academy. It’s already helped dozens of WSU students find their calling and given them a roadmap to success.

“For me, the class taught me to put myself out there, and that life revolves around building relationships,” says senior Erik Etherton, who took the course the last two semesters and aspires to become a film critic. “I like telling stories and this class pushed me in that direction. It opened a lot of doors and taught me about myself.”

The spring sessions focus on, “finding your why,” and building competencies in undergraduate research – specifically in the humanities. Hunter says the spring course is ideal for students experiencing the sophomore slump. Faculty colleagues, guest speakers and graduate students serve as mentors for the students as they begin to build their community of support. The fall sessions are more professionally focused, with students thinking about life beyond WSU and preparation for their careers.

Students are gaining tremendous benefits from the Passport Program, and so are faculty. In working intimately with students, faculty gain an appreciation for the challenges they must overcome to find success.

“Students have talked about messing up, usually when there’s something that has come up in their lives, and when they’ve gone to the professor to try to remedy that, they feel very distrusted,” says English instructor Amy May, who joined the Passport Program as a small group facilitator last fall. “While participating in Passport, I have learned students often felt distrusted by their instructors and professors. Throughout the semester (Hunter) includes activities to build student confidence and to show students they are valuable members of a community.”

Hunter says breaking down potential walls between faculty and students is a key component of the program. She implemented one-on-one meetings with her Passport students last January, discussing each student’s goals for the semester, and the obstacles standing in the way of their goals. Those meetings led to major breakthroughs for the students, and for the Passport Program.

“Those are the most powerful connects I’ve ever felt with students,” Hunter says. “They were revealing their dreams, but also their vulnerabilities and weaknesses. It transformed the way I think about my students and what I want to give them. They’re beautifully complex and imperfect. When they’re strong enough to share those challenges and obstacles with me, it’s a gift. It immediately carried over into my other teaching.

“The reason students aren’t turning in homework or coming to class is usually much deeper than just apathy. It’s usually fear, health problems, financial problems, or family problems. We want them to know they can talk to faculty, there are resources on campus, and it’s OK to reach out for help.”

Hunter is working hard to turn the Passport Program into a transferrable, scalable curriculum. It’s a significant challenge for a project that is so personal and holistic, but she sees it as essential for helping our students thrive at WSU.

“We have to remind ourselves sometimes that we’re here for the students,” Hunter says. “We gain a lot of professional satisfaction from doing this kind of work. It’s giving us, and our students, a great sense of purpose.”

Faculty interested in learning more about the Passport Program can email Hunter at leeann.hunter@wsu.edu.