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Washington State University Office of the Provost

Student Success Initiatives expand into Commons

Ray Acuña-Luna assists a prospective Cougs Rise student at Bremerton High School. Cougs Rise will host up to 40 students for its bridge program this summer at WSU Pullman.

The Office of the Provost’s Student Success Initiatives are transforming students and expanding opportunities in support of our land grant mission.

Commons Hall on the Pullman campus is undergoing a transformation of its own. Built in 1924, Commons was the fifth building on Pullman’s campus, and Student Success Initiatives is working to return the space to its original student-centered purpose.

“Our vision is to develop a space that supports and fosters academic engagement in highly impactful practices—to really be a launching pad for involvement in a transformative experience at WSU,” says Michael Highfill, director of several of our grant-funded student success initiatives.

To achieve that purpose, Highfill and his team have been awarded seven grants totaling $9.5M over the last three years. The initiatives that share the second floor of the Commons include ATLAS, Cougs Rise, and Invest in Success.

“Our initiatives form the foundation of this new space, tackling the behavioral, cognitive, non-cognitive, and resource issues that inhibit academic engagement,” Highfill says. “But what that foundation allows is a place where students, scholars, and practitioners work together to advance student success.”

Future plans include research fellowships, seed grants, increased coordination with student leaders, and expansion of programming. The students served by the initiatives have a central area to meet, study and feel at home.

“I think there’s a sense of community now with the student success initiatives,” says Kelly Demand, project director for Invest in Success. “For Invest in Success, the move to the Commons has strengthened our services and just made it easier for students to connect with us.”

From preparing students before they arrive on campus, to filling unmet financial need, to providing holistic and career advising, each project is enriching the community and transforming students’ lives. Here’s a look at some of the other recent developments with each of the Office of the Provost’s Student Success Initiatives:

Invest in Success

Part of Kelly Demand’s mission as project director for Invest in Success, is to change the conversations around finances. Instead of discussing financial literacy, she talks about financial wellness and promotes a holistic view of the subject and its role in overall wellbeing.

“Getting rid of some of the financial barriers, so that the students have a chance to succeed is a large part of Invest in Success,” Demand says. “But so many students feel alienated. They gain the ability to manage their finances from here on out, and they gain a sense of belonging and they’re able to advocate for themselves.”

Evelyn Mejia embodies the mission. Mejia had doubts about her ability to make it when she started at WSU in 2016 as a first-generation student from Cashmere, Wash. Her time in Invest in Success changed her outlook, as she learned how to budget and plan out her financing. She saved money from her summer job as a server at Taqueria El Chavo in Cashmere, all while earning her certified nursing assistant license.

Mejia’s hard work and sacrifice led to the $4,000 payout through Invest in Success. Beyond the financial incentive, she gained the skills and confidence to budget, save money and control her financial wellbeing.

“Coming in my freshman year, I did not know how to budget at all,” Mejia says. “Budgeting is so important for financial wellness.”

Mejia now serves as a mentor for other Invest in Success students, and aspires to a career in nursing. She spent her spring break in Los Angeles, serving with different non-profit groups and gaining inspiration from volunteering and spending time with those less fortunate.

“I know I want to go back to my hometown and help meet their healthcare needs,” Mejia says.

Invest in Success serves low-income student who have high levels of unmet need. Unmet Need is at least as predictive as academic readiness and has a more immediate impact on retention. Students with high unmet need are retained at lower rates than lower unmet need peers at all levels of academic readiness. However, first year retention for Invest in Success students was 88.5 percent, compared to 71.7 percent for the comparison student group.


The Aspiring Teaching Leadership and Success (ATLAS) project serves individuals who will be teaching in Washington state in the coming years, and its impact is clearly evident. Through holistic advising, unique engagement and referrals to campus resources, ATLAS served 182 students in its first three years.

Project director Ali Bretthauer is utilizing peer advisors to connect with students and help them enact their personal action plans.

“A lot of what we do is serve as a first point of contact, support students in utilizing campus resources, and let them know that it’s OK to ask for help,” Bretthauer says. “Good students use tutoring and they understand it’s not remedial, it’s a support service. We help students understand the rules of school.”

The initiative proved invaluable for John Kranz, a junior majoring in secondary education. Kranz is now an advocate for ATLAS and the students he serves as a peer mentor.

“ATLAS has been incredibly helpful to me in my time at WSU,” Kranz says. “The advising has always helped me succeed academically, but also provides great emotional support for times when I get frustrated.”

Bretthauer’s goal is to focus ATLAS’s efforts on the students who need it most.

“We’re working to identify the highest need students and encourage them to participate because those in need of support are often the least likely to engage, Bretthauer says.

Here are some statistical highlights from 2016-17 for ATLAS:

  • 87 percent of ATLAS students persisted at WSU into 2017-18,
  • 78 percent of ATLAS students increased their GPA during program participation,
  • 93 percent of ATLAS students attained or maintained good academic standing.

Cougs Rise

Project director Ray Acuña-Luna and his staff are working hard to recruit 180 students for the inaugural cohort of Cougs Rise. They’ve visited the five high schools involved with the project, and are receiving warm reception from future Cougs.

Cougs Rise is a high school to college bridge initiative that includes programming for students while they’re in high school, and then an on-campus experience at WSU Pullman designed to prepare students academically and socially for the rigors of college.

Low-income and first-generation students from Bremerton, Hudson Bay (Vancouver), Rogers (Spokane), University (Spokane Valley) and Wenatchee high schools are eligible for Cougs Rise.

Around 40 students are expected to participate this summer, and they’ll take six weeks of classes (eight credits). The students will stay in residence halls on campus and take part in group activities, much like residence halls function throughout the academic year.

To cap off the summer bridge session, the cohort will visit Washington, D.C. with WSU faculty for an experiential learning experience.

“The classes will blend into the travel, and the faculty are looking to incorporate it into the curriculum,” Acuña-Luna says. “The summer bridge experience is all expenses paid for students, and they’ll get academic preparation, time management skills, learn how to contact their professors, and learn how to study at the college level. We’ll be able to provide information and experiences that incoming students typically don’t get.”

The initiative aims to provide extra support for students to complete their first UCORE requirements, and create a sense of belonging at WSU so that students are primed for success when they begin their first semester as Cougs.

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