As Portland State’s first Student Success Advocate, Joe Soto seeks to see the whole student — their interests, their background, their goals — and form a genuine connection.
Soto is leading a one-year data-driven pilot program to help identify and support students experiencing personal challenges or institutional barriers. This program is part of PSU’s Students First initiative, a campus-wide commitment to helping students succeed and graduate. PSU President Stephen Percy has identified improved student success as one of the main strategic priorities of his presidency.
“The Students First initiative builds on Portland State's history and values and our shared belief that every student we admit at PSU can be successful, if given the opportunity to do so,” says Michele Toppe, Vice Provost for Student Affairs. “By strategically putting a caring, resourceful advocate in a position to connect directly with students, we know that we strengthen our ability to ensure that each one of our students feels that they are seen, known and that they matter.”
Soto was able to hit the ground running in his new position, in part because he knows PSU well. Since 2012, Soto has served in several different roles at PSU, including a student worker with the Cultural Resource Centers, a University Studies Peer Mentor and a graduate teaching assistant. Soto, who graduated from PSU and is finishing up a Master’s in educational leadership and policy at PSU, started his new role in September.
Soto is working with a cohort of 400 students this year. The cohort was selected using the new Student Success tool, which combines data about 50 different factors — such as high school GPA, first generation status, housing insecurity — to identify students most likely to experience challenges adapting to life in college.
Additional at-risk students are identified throughout the term with early alerts from faculty and advisors. Students may be flagged for extra support from Soto if they haven’t logged into their online courses or have done poorly on exams.
“A huge part of my role is looking at the data that we have and identifying students who may be experiencing challenges,” he says. During the term, Soto reaches out to these students and asks to meet with them.
“What we know about student success is that students who are engaged, not just in activities but especially with a caring staff or faculty member, are going to do better in school and so that's that’s the goal of the Student Success Advocate — to get them connected,” says Michael Walsh, Associate Vice Provost and Dean of Students.
When Soto learns of a student who is flagged as maybe needing help, he reaches out to them directly. The first goal is getting to know the students — their academic and career goals, their access to resources, their experiences with remote learning. Then he helps connect them with resources like the Learning Center, student groups and academic coaching. Soto aims to teach students to advocate for themselves and to help students feel like they are a part of the PSU community.
“It’s about empowering students and really creating a success plan where success is defined by the student,” says Soto.
For many students that plan may mean additional support services, but for some students success may require taking a break for a term to attend to family issues or save money.
“We'd like for students to complete their degree at PSU but that process is not going to be linear. For a student to succeed, it might include unconventional strategies, and we need to normalize that,” Soto says.
Early results from the program are promising. The percentage of students who re-enrolled for winter term was higher for Soto’s at-risk cohort than for PSU students in general, and feedback from students and academic advisors has been positive.
For first year student Kaiya Young, Soto’s mentorship made a big difference.
“I started off feeling a little behind, and I wasn't sure how my classes were working,” says Young. “I didn't really know what was going on, and I didn't really reach out or connect with anyone.”
Soto contacted Young and asked to have a conversation. They talked about her interests in social, racial and environmental justice and what it was like to start school remotely. Soto recommended a book that she started reading and connected her to people involved in Indigenous Studies at PSU and other campus resources.
“He definitely made me feel very included,” says Young. “It was like a breath of fresh air. There's no assignment, no requirement, it's just a genuine connection that I really appreciate.”
According to Walsh, Soto was the perfect candidate for the inaugural Student Success Advocate position because of his charismatic and caring personality.
“He's so happy when other people are succeeding,” says Walsh, who was also one of Soto’s professors. “And he's really thoughtful, and he knows how to use the data.”
Equally importantly, says Walsh, is that Soto has already been able to determine what data are missing from the Student Success tool, which will help improve the tool and the program moving forward. For example, Soto would love to have more real-time data integrated into the tool and to have more faculty use the early alert system.
Depending on how the pilot program goes, PSU may expand the number of Student Success Advocates or find different ways to use what’s been learned through the program.
“Students are coming to PSU with barriers already,” says Soto. “Part of this work is proposing changes in policy as we learn what our students really need.”
As for Young, she’s glad to have been part of the pilot program. “It's great,” she says. “I think it's really needed for students to feel like there's a person who cares about them doing well.”