U strives to find freshmen’s strengths

The University of Minnesota starts new students off with a strengths assessment focusing on students’ talents and potential.

Rachel Raveling

President Eric KalerâÄôs strengths are competition and individualization. He is analytical, an achiever and a learner.
ThatâÄôs according to the Clifton StrengthsFinder, an online assessment that University of Minnesota freshmen are doing for the first time this year.
As part of Welcome Week, 4,900 freshmen took the 180-item evaluation of their strengths, ultimately categorizing each with five main strengths. These, in turn, are given in the context of how students can use their strengths in real life âÄî from classes to career goals.
The University uses the tool to encourage students to view traits in positive ways and to focus on what theyâÄôre good at, using it to relate to others on campus, said Beth Lingren Clark, director of Orientation and First-Year Programs.
âÄúI used to think I just liked to hear myself talk, but then I realized maybe I was smart,âÄù said Spencer Borchardt, a College of Science and Engineering freshman. The assessment taught him that something he thought was negative could actually be helpful. Rather than just talking a lot, he sees himself as sharing valuable information.
The StrengthsFinder âÄúgave a name for what you knew you had but couldnâÄôt describe,âÄù Borchardt said. âÄúIt is a great way to discover things about yourself.âÄù
The University has used the StrengthsFinder in more limited ways for nearly a decade, but a couple of years ago the Office for Student Engagement recognized the assessment could be useful to get new students involved on campus, said Robin Stubblefield, Director of Student Engagement.
The Office of Institutional Research at the University has a plan to study the initiativeâÄôs impact on studentsâÄô college careers through surveys. A group of campus offices also applied for a $50,000 grant to be used for focus groups.
The point of the research will be to decide whether the initiative is worth the effort, money and studentsâÄô time, not to find ways for the University to shape itself around studentsâÄô common strengths.
A Coca-Cola contract funds the program, which costs $10 per online code, or per student, according to its website. Stubblefield said that after taking the assessment, students will hopefully gain a broad understanding of all types of strengths and learn to recognize positive differences in peoplesâÄô talents and how to collaborate in team environments.
With Welcome Week geared toward the strengths initiative, there was encouragement around every corner, and Goldy Gopher helped get students excited. Students voted on what they would consider GoldyâÄôs top five strengths, choosing, among others, âÄúwoo,âÄù or enjoyment of winning others over, and âÄúcompetition.âÄù
Jared Valyo, a sophomore and Welcome Week leader this year, said the strengths assessment is a good way to âÄúfocus more on what IâÄôm good at.âÄù
âÄúIt fosters self-worth âÄî you can learn a lot from it and reflect on what it means,âÄù he said. While working with freshmen, Valyo said he could tell many of them were hesitant to take the assessment, but afterward became more interested in discussions and learning to use their strengths.
Borchardt said that at first, he was annoyed at the assessment: âÄúOh no! More guidance coming at me!âÄù But he found it shed a positive light on him, and said heâÄôll try to use his strengths as a confidence booster to get him through his first semester.
The Office for Student Engagement used the initiative for the first time this year as part of a three-year trial, after which it will decide whether or not to add it to Welcome Week.
Both Valyo and Borchardt said they would support a permanent addition.
âÄúThe initiative demonstrates how many departments can come together to aid student success,âÄù Stubblefield said. Compared to her expectations, she said everything has been going very well and she has noticed upbeat responses.
This year the program included only incoming freshmen, but in the future will also include transfer students, according to an overview of the program.