Creating a warm, supportive environment that fosters student success has always been integral to the University of West Alabama culture. The university has recently strengthened its commitment by partnering with Caring Campus, a national initiative developed by the Institute for Evidenced-Based Change (IEBC), a non-profit organization designed to enhance students’ sense of belonging and increase student retention and success.

“The philosophy underpinning the Caring Campus initiative resonated with our senior leadership team as we seek to strengthen our commitment to making our students feel welcomed, valued and supported,” UWA President Ken Tucker said. “We know that campus culture tremendously impacts a student’s decision to choose a school and stay for their entire college experience.”

An initial kick-off session was held on April 23 that included thirty-one UWA staff members as well as the university’s leadership team. Staff members have already engaged in two four-hour work sessions in May and June, with others still to come. During these sessions, two IEBC coaches presented research supporting the program’s goals and the five behavioral commitments that work. Staff members have broken into groups to develop initiatives to implement the behavioral commitments to strengthen and foster student connectedness at UWA.

“Caring Campus is designed to facilitate the important conversations that are needed for continuous improvement with a boots-on-the-ground approach to identifying the challenges and opportunities that can effectively shape campus culture in a way that supports students and also allow our faculty and staff to be fulfilled in their efforts,” Tucker said. “Our campus—a small, regional institution—has long been known for professors and staff who care about our students, and this initiative allows us to build on that foundation. Our goal is for our students to be successful, and our faculty and staff can be commended for going out of their way to help students overcome obstacles and break down the barriers to their success.”

The group will present their findings to the university’s leadership team on June 28.

“This program isn’t customer service training,” noted Dr. Melissa Haab, vice president for student affairs and enrollment management at UWA, “it is a very intentional and systematic effort to build upon the intrinsic culture of our university and to ensure that we live up to our slogan, ‘There’s something about this place.’ We want students to not only choose UWA but also stay and be successful.”

One of the things Haab said she liked most about the process was that the staff created what the Caring Campus initiative would look like at UWA. “Instead of a top-down approach, our staff, many of whom were identified as members of this working group because they already exemplified good caring qualities, are getting to say, ‘we know the students and what they need, and here are some initiatives that make sense that we can implement along the way.’”

Excited about what’s happening and proud of the staff members who have brought the process together, Haab believes with the implementation of this program, “we’re capitalizing on what’s already here. In effect, our institution is showing that we are who we say we are.”

When speaking to the working group of staff members upon the initiative’s launch and first planning session, Tucker emphasized continuous improvement, encouraging staff to recognize that even efforts that seem the simplest in scope have a lasting impact.

“I often reference the Japanese term ‘kaizen,’ which means ‘tiny improvements in a thousand different places,’” Tucker said. “The improvements that many make together, no matter how small, lead to very meaningful improvements over time.”