Experience curators help students belong, connect, engage and transform

On the "U Rising" podcast, President Ruth V. Watkins engages in insightful conversations with students, staff, faculty, alumni and community stakeholders who are at the center of the state's flagship research university. President Watkins also connects with other leaders to give listeners a fresh take on top issues and innovations in higher education in Utah and across the country. You can subscribe to U Rising via iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher and other podcast streaming services.

Tressa Parkes and Alexander Langenwalter are experience curators—a cool title for their work helping other students build social connections, engage on campus and get the most out of their time at the U, all virtually during the pandemic. The two students are featured on a new website launched by the Office of Undergraduate Studies as part of the exceptional educational experience initiative. In this episode, Tressa and Alexander join Martha Bradley-Evans, Jim Agutter and Brandon Marshall to explain the new initiative and how other students can get involved. Recorded on Monday, Dec. 21, 2020. Thanks to Brooke Adams and Dave White for technical assistance. Original music by Taylor Hartley.


President Ruth Watkins: Hello, I'm Ruth Watkins, president of the University of Utah. It's a great day because today we get to hear about a new initiative that's designed to help our students maximize their time at the U, make the most of their experiences at the University of Utah. Joining us today: Martha Bradley-Evans, who's senior associate vice president for Academic Affairs and dean of the Office of Undergraduate Studies. Jim Agutter, an associate dean in undergraduate studies. Brandon Marshall, the experience designer for undergraduate studies. And Tressa Parkes and Alexander Langenwalter. And Alexander and Tressa have unique titles. They're called experience curators, which sounds really intriguing. And we're going to find out more about that. So, welcome all of you.

Thanks for being with us today and thanks for joining this edition of the U Rising podcast. So, the Office of Undergraduate studies has launched an initiative that highlights what is called the exceptional educational experience. That's what we want every student to have. There's a new website underway to tell you more about this effort. So Marti, let's start with you. I know that you have been the champion and the leader of this effort. Tell us what the exceptional educational experience means to you and why you've taken it up with such energy and passion.

Martha Bradley-Evans: We're so happy to be here with you, Ruth. Thank you for the opportunity. We have a pretty lofty goal and that is that every student has an exceptional educational experience—what we call E3. What that means to us is that every student has the chance to be anchored in a community of learners, where they can be supported and nurtured and where they can develop a sense of belonging. We want every student to feel like they belong at the U. And we want every student to have a transformative experience or something that helps them learn about their strengths and empowers them and helps them understand the experience of others.

Through E3, students will also gain knowledge and develop skills that prepare them for their lives after graduation and that might be graduate school or it might be their lives as informed citizens or in their future careers. Finally, we want students to plan on having an impact. And that might start now. What we want them to consider is what their impact will be and to start making it happen. So, the idea for the E3 website came from this lofty ambition and this year it has a special twist. The experience described on the website can be done in the virtual world. They can develop a sense of belonging, be transformed, gain knowledge and skills, and have an impact.

President Watkins: So spectacular Marti. And I think, particularly, people often think of the University of Utah as this great big institution and will I be able to have an impact? Will I, as a student, be able to make a difference? Will I have an exceptional educational experience in this big place? It's wonderful what you've done to answer all those questions with a big yes. And I know your colleague, Jim Agutter, has helped make that happen. Tell us a little bit more about the initiative, Jim.

Jim Agutter: Yeah. Well, thanks for inviting us all today and chatting about this. We've been thinking about this initiative for some time and having a website that really celebrates these amazing experiences. And with the COVID pandemic, it took on a new urgency and a new focus. And really highlighted our efforts in a different way than we would have been doing normally. And it required us to be a little bit more creative in thinking about how to have a sense of belonging, how to connect students with really great events that were happening on campus. And so we worked with Brandon and a variety of students and came up with some ideas for a virtual space that students can hang out in, that's very much like our beloved center on campus for undergraduate studies, where students can listen to music together and chat.

It also celebrates the amazing experiences that students have, even during this time, and celebrates their stories and provides them an opportunity to share those stories. And then we have this really cool feature of these student curators who are looking through the universe of their particular interests and finding these events and books and movies and listening tastes and putting that out on the web for other students to join in and look at that and check out what they're interested in.

President Watkins: I'm so grateful that you've figured out ways for people to continue to have an exceptional experience in this strange time with COVID-19. And now I think we're going to turn to Brandon. Brandon, you're a University of Utah graduate, and you have been the architect and builder of this website for the exceptional educational experience. So, tell us a little bit about yourself, maybe your university story, and then what are you doing with the website?

Brandon Marshall: Yes. So, thank you. So just some brief background. I studied multidisciplinary design at the U, who the director was Jim, of course, and that's how I got in touch with him. And I graduated in spring of 2019. And a lot of the projects that I worked on through the design program were centered around education and how we may educate the users who use any product. And Jim saw a few of those projects and had a bit more work for me moving forward to help out. So that's where I've been placed as helping Jim with a few projects in building the students' experience and making it the best it can be. And seeing that body of work and everything that's really what this website does. It's a space for students to come and share and collect all of their exceptional experiences and hopefully find more and celebrate others.

President Watkins: So, Brandon is the website live and where can we find it?

Brandon Marshall: It is. It's live. It's under undergraduate studies, but it's

President Watkins: That's awesome. Okay. Now it's time for us to learn about these experience curators, which is pretty interesting. A whole new title. Tressa, let's start with you. I think it would be good for listeners to hear a little bit about you, about your University of Utah story, what you're studying and what it means to be an experience curator.

Tressa Parkes: Yeah. Thank you so much. So, I am from Salt Lake City, Utah. I'm a second-year student here at the U and I am a pre-architecture major with an entrepreneurship minor. An experience curator is, as Jim said a little bit earlier, really someone who finds events, webinars, classes, ways to engage with both the university and the wider community along a specific area of interest. So, for me, I really focus on the artistic side of things—so architecture, painting classes, anything along those lines. I became involved with this project because I'm very passionate about student engagement and think it can completely change someone's time at the University of Utah and just their life altogether. So that's my pathway here.

President Watkins: Pretty great. One thing we know is that students who are connected and engaged have the best experiences. They get the most out of college. So, you're using your talents really wisely and well. I understand another way you're using them is giving people some ideas about great books, TV shows, movies. Tressa, give us something from your favorites list.

Tressa Parkes: So, my current favorite book is “The Secret Lives of Color” by Kassia St. Clair. It is a book that tells you the origin story of different colors, which is something I never really thought of. And I find that super interesting as someone who incorporates color into a lot of my designs and my classwork and my work. I would highly recommend it to anyone. It's an easy read and very engaging.

President Watkins: Given that you're recommending to listeners this book about color, tell us about your favorite color.

Tressa Parkes: Yeah. So, it really depends on what I'm using the specific color for. I tend to be a huge fan of muted pastel colors. I really like the colored gray, oddly enough. And I am also a big fan of a light pink color.

President Watkins: Well, very interesting. And I'm interested in reading that book because I can't even imagine what the origins of colors would be about. That's how much I lack imagination! So, I'll look forward to that. Well, Alexander, time to hear a little bit from you. Tell us a little bit about your University of Utah story and about what you're doing as an experience curator.

Alexander Langenwalter: Yeah. First of all, thank you. I'm not from Salt Lake. I'm not from Utah. I'm from Idaho, Boise. Actually, I was raised in Meridian, which is about 10 miles west of Boise. And I came to the U to study game design. And that's what I'm getting a major in. I also have a minor in English, creative writing. I learned about the E3 program through my advisor, who is Elizabeth Arrigona of EAE [Entertainment Arts & Engineering]. And I thought it was a super interesting thing that we had going on because as an out-of-state student, I struggled initially to find my place here at the university. And I really want to be able to help other students quickly find the place that they feel like they belong here at the U.

President Watkins: Well, that's pretty fabulous. So, what's the best educational experience you've had during your time at the U? What really helped you connect to this place?

Alexander Langenwalter: It's broad, but I feel like just how accepting the professors here are, especially at EAE specifically, because as a person who grew up in not the best place in terms of accepting people, people who are accepting of who you are, what you want to do, it was really nice, really refreshing to come to the U and be accepted with open arms by not only my fellow students but the professors as well. I remember really distinctly that on the first day I started wearing my little he/him pronoun pin here at the university, my professor Corrinne Lewis, she called me up to the stage after her lecture, and she was like, "I love your pin, Alexander." And that was the first time anyone had really acknowledged me for who I wanted to be acknowledged as. And that was super cool.

President Watkins: Very good. Well, I think it's fabulous when people find a major that is a fit. And, of course, we want everyone to do that. And I think you and Tressa as experience curators are doing that for people. Helping people find their fit at the University of Utah. All right. Alexander, we’ve got to hear one more thing from you and that is your book, movie, TV recommendation that you would want to share with all of us.

Alexander Langenwalter: Yeah. I'm going to go with a documentary, a little movie documentary. It's called GTFO and it covers the video game industry—the darker side of the video game industry, I should say, and how it's riddled with discrimination. But it also explains ways that we can work as a community to get over these negative aspects and create an industry that is accepting of everyone.

President Watkins: Do you have a favorite game you'd want listeners to know about?

Alexander Langenwalter: Yeah, I do actually. Being a games major, I devote a lot of my time to playing video games. So that's a super, super hard question to answer. But the first game that does come to mind, especially right now, it's a trilogy, it's called Mass Effect. There's Mass Effect 1, 2 and 3. And the core theme of the game is human perseverance through the toughest situations. And no matter what the main character Shepard is—whatever is thrown at Commander Shepard, he gets through it, no matter what it is. I think that's something we can all learn from, especially right now, with all the uncertainty going on in the world.

President Watkins: What a great recommendation of a game that illustrates human resilience. I like that. And I can only say, Alexander, you've come a long way since Ms. Pac-Man, which was the game when I was in college.

And then Tressa, I'd love to go back to you because I know we've met before in many situations and one of them I think was First Year Counsel. But I'm wondering what you would say were the educational experiences that really engaged you and helped you connect with the University of Utah.

Tressa Parkes: That is exactly what I was going to say, is First Year Council. I came to the U with a goal to be engaged as much as possible. I had seen that transform people's lives through engagement. And so I decided to apply to First Year Council. And I would strongly recommend any prospective student or first-year student to join First Year Council. It's a place where you can really find your group of people all throughout campus and learn about different campus communities and ways you can get involved with them and just learning about all that the U has to offer. And so it's very much changed my trajectory throughout the University of Utah. And I'm now still engaged with ASUU as a senator. So, it really opens up a lot of pathways and would strongly recommend it.

President Watkins: Such excellent advice. Listeners, you heard it here first—First Year Council. Great recommendation. All right, Jim. I'm guessing a lot of people listening today are going to wonder where they can go for more information. There are always people that want more connections and need more connections, and they just don't know how to form them. So, what would you recommend and where would you send people?

Jim Agutter: Well, first, you can come to our website which is Fairly simple to remember. Just type it in. And from that website, you can find stories. You can find our virtual Sill Center. You can find the experience curators as well as more. And we also encourage you to contribute. We are always looking for other people to contribute and share their amazing stories here at the university, not only as a way to celebrate their own adventures and their own experience, but also to inspire others to find themselves, find the wonderful experiences that exist all across the university.

President Watkins: Great advice. And I love that people are contributing their stories to this website because that's inspiring to others who are going to read about people like them—or not like them—but that have great ideas about how to be more connected to the university.

Now, as we wrap up, I want to take just a moment and give a special moment of appreciation to Dean Martha Bradley-Evans. Martha has led the way as a champion of the student experience at the University of Utah for many years, bringing creative and new programs and opportunities and always with one goal, and that goal is that students succeed at the University of Utah. Marti, special shout out to you. And let me give you a minute if there's anything you want to add.

Martha Bradley-Evans: Thank you so much. That was so kind of you. You know what? We think the E3 website is particularly important this year. In a year where our answer right and left has been no, you can't do that, you can't do that, you can't go that far. We wanted to have a place where students could go where the answer was yes. A resounding yes. So that they'll continue to imagine what's possible in their lives and find ways to engage and transform and inspire through this virtual environment.

President Watkins: What a good wrap-up, Marti, because in my experience working with Marti, the answer's always yes. Yes, we can do this. Yes, we aspire to be more. Yes, we can help students. What a career and what a great way to be celebrated with wonderful students that I will thank, like Tressa and Alexander, like students who are now graduates and fellow colleagues like Brandon and Jim. So special, thanks to all of you for your time today telling our listeners about the exceptional educational experience at the University of Utah. And listeners, thanks for being part of the podcast today and I hope you'll tune in for the next edition of the U Rising podcast.