University of Arkansas

Walton College

The Sam M. Walton College of Business

Episode 117: Karen Boston on the Student Success Initiatives at the Walton College

March 31, 2021  |  By Matt Waller

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Karen Boston, senior assistant dean and chief student officer at the Sam M. Walton College of Business, shares her insights on the student success activities and initiatives within the University of Arkansas and specifically Walton College.

Karen explains the Turn 2 Into 4 program, the ways the college is helping solve student obstacles and how data analytics plays a role in this, and how the career readiness initiative has partnered with companies to truly prepare students for future careers.

Episode Transcript

0:00:06.3 Matt Waller: Hi, I'm Matt Waller, Dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business. Welcome to Be EPIC, the podcast where we explore excellence, professionalism, innovation and collegiality, and what those values mean in business education and your life today. I have with me today, Karen Boston, who has been with the Walton College for many years and made many achievements in the college, she is now a Senior Assistant Dean and Chief Student officer. Now, one of her primary responsibilities has to do with student success, and that's what we're going to be talking about today. Karen, thank you for joining me, I really appreciate it.

0:00:56.0 Karen Boston: Thank you, Matt. Glad to be here.

0:01:00.9 Matt Waller: Karen, you have had many experiences here at the University of Arkansas over the years, all of them dealing with students in one way or another, and so you are absolutely the best person to be leading this initiative, this effort, which the whole universities are doing as well. Student success is so important, especially our vision has two pillars, thought leadership and serving as a catalyst for transforming lives. When you think of student success, what do you think of?

0:01:34.7 Karen Boston: I think of ours really are six overarching initiatives that we started about four years ago, and I think about how the university started it with the Chancellor really about four years ago, this university wide student success initiative. And so when I think about it, I think about those specific initiatives that we started within the college that really drive our student success model.

0:02:00.3 Matt Waller: So Karen, one of the initiatives that I've been really impressed with that you've got going here in the Walton College is the Turn 2 into 4 program, would you mind talking about that a little bit?

0:02:12.9 Karen Boston: Sure. You know that program started based on one of our initiatives to bring the Walton experience to a broader set of students. And the students that are in the state of Arkansas are certainly an important part of that initiative, we had not historically had a lot of partnerships with many schools across the state, and especially now that we have had many of those two-year schools join the University of Arkansas system it became even more important for us to create some partnerships with them and some opportunities for their students to transition to Walton. And the other piece of that was that we were offering the online initiatives, specifically opportunities for students across the state to finish with Walton without ever having to physically come to the University of Arkansas, and so those initiatives and supply chain management and accounting and general business really took off in having us create these partnerships.

0:03:14.3 Karen Boston: But the Turn 2 into 4 program is a great opportunity for students at the community colleges across the state, whether they're partner schools within the system, U of A system, or if there are other schools, such as North Arkansas College in Harrison or NorthWest Arkansas Community College in Bentonville, which has been a long-standing partner with us, and those students have a specific articulation agreement that ensures that the courses that they take as part of their associative Science and Business at their institution transition to Walton in a more of a seamless approach. But the really exciting thing that I think about it is that we really start working with those students when they're in their first year at their community college, so we began programming and advising and opportunities for those students to engage with our team as if they were part of the Walton College.

0:04:11.5 Karen Boston: So I'm excited that we have partnerships with University of Arkansas, Pulaski Tech in Little Rock and University of Arkansas, Cossatot in De Queen, Arkansas and Southern Arkansas, as well as North Arkansas College in Harrison. And then next month, we're excited to celebrate our 15th anniversary of our partnership with NorthWest Arkansas Community College, we have two agreements with those institutions, and we'll be celebrating that 15-year partnership. We're in the works with the University of Arkansas Morrilton and University of Arkansas Rich Mountain in Mena, as well as the University of Arkansas Batesville. Those are the other programs that are coming.

0:04:53.4 Karen Boston: The other big thing that I wanna share about Turn 2 into 4 is the students, I mentioned that could transition to us via online do not have the opportunity to take advantage of the transfer achievement scholarship that's available to those students at our partner schools that is a great opportunity for students that are interested in coming physically to the University of Arkansas. But we began a scholarship initiative this summer to provide opportunities for funding for students that were not going to come face-to-face and needed that funding to remain in their communities like De Queen or Little Rock and continue their education virtually with us. And so that scholarship program is up and running, and we were able to award two scholarships this last fall and hope to award others here in the future.

0:05:45.7 Matt Waller: Now Karen, in the past, you haven't had to do so much partnership management as you've been doing for this program, has that been challenging? Have you enjoyed it?

0:06:00.1 Karen Boston: It has been challenging. I think that any time that you began a new relationship with partners, whether there are other universities across the state that we had quite honestly not had relationships with before, it takes some time to build trust and cultivate those relationships but it's been really exciting to see the opportunities that that has created for students, for us all over the state. We have about 50 or so students in the program now and continue to see that really growing.

0:06:31.7 Matt Waller: Well, you know, a few years ago, our college started partnering with Simmons Food, so that people in the college that wanted to learn and implement Continuous Improvement, Six Sigma Lean, those kinds of technologies approaches could be able to do that. So Simmons Foods agreed to allow people from Walton College to go through their training, and they have some of the most extensive Lean Six Sigma type training in the region. They're very advanced in that. Early on, a number of people on your team went through some of that training, but a lot of that has to do with process improvement, identifying problems and removing them, and for students, it's good for students to encourage challenges and at times, but a lot of the times, we have really unnecessary challenges that students wind up facing. And so I know one of your efforts is to really look for these challenges or roadblocks that students face and try to eliminate them. Would you mind talking a little bit about that?

0:07:44.7 Karen Boston: Sure. That's absolutely true that one of our initiatives is to identify and remove those challenges for our current students, and initially we started with math. Many of our students were struggling in the math courses that are required for business majors, and we did do some evaluation of both of the math courses that were required early on, and worked with the math department and the math team core coordinators on those classes, and were able to identify a couple of topical areas that needed some enhancement, so to speak, so that they could be more successful in some of our other classes. Another new initiative with math that we started this spring is with Pearson, who is doing some new analytics with regard to math specifically, where we're able to identify students early on who have not completed homework or assignments in some way, where we can help to begin to nudge them on that, and help them to see the relationship between starting assignments and homework, etcetera, early, and the success in those courses. We're also able to identify those students that did not do well on particular exams and help to intervene in some way too.

0:09:01.3 Karen Boston: So I'm excited about that initiative this spring, but then the other big one that we did was we coordinated with business law, and specifically Kim Petrone, who's the Course Coordinator for Business Law, who's fantastic, and tried to identify some barriers there. The big first business law test was the same week, or even the same day, as one of the large first math exams, and so we were able to make some adjustments there to help students. So those are just a couple of examples of some of the things that we're trying to identify, specifically in the classroom, and helping to manage those and help with some interventions and support there.

0:09:39.1 Matt Waller: In our mission statement as Walton College, a part of it talks about how we are to encourage innovation in our primary strategic endeavors, and one of the strategic endeavors is data analytics. You clearly have done that. I know you're using an analytical approach, a data-driven approach to figure out which students are at risk and need intervention. Would you mind talking a little bit about that?

0:10:08.4 Karen Boston: I think the biggest thing that we've been trying to do is there are a lot of initiatives both at the university level, and within other colleges, trying to get that alignment as we've talked about across campus, so that we're all intervening at a particular time with a particular target population, and that we're not really inundating students too terribly much. So it's really trying to take all the data and the reporting that happens across campus and mapping that out and getting some alignment about who's doing it, when are they doing it, what are they doing, and what those initiatives might be. We're using a new tool, Forecast5, that is helping with some internal college data. That's really exciting to put in this alignment with all the other initiatives that we're working on, both in the college and across campus.

0:10:56.7 Karen Boston: So looking at the net promoter score, as you know, Matt, and trying to get sort of a temperature of our students, particularly our freshmen, and understanding challenges they may face. And then the newest one being that student sentiment survey and understanding how a particular climate that we're in, that is happening, and remote learning, those types of things, and us being able to use that student sentiment survey going forward as different situational type things occur, and how we can really, again, take that temperature of students, see where they are, and then see what type of programming or other interventions we need to consider.

0:11:40.9 Matt Waller: One of the challenges for students, not just in Walton College, but I think all college students is they get into college and there are so many options. So many options, and the Walton College is really no exception to that. It seems like a small percentage of students really take advantage of that, but I know you have initiated an effort to really help students think about the future and what do they want, and then to expose them to these options. Would you mind talking about that a bit?

0:12:19.1 Karen Boston: Yes, I hate to say that I have a favorite initiative but maybe this is one of the ones that's been most exciting, because you're right. Students come in, particularly as freshmen, and we throw so many things at them, so many opportunities, they're not even sure where to start. So as you know, Matt, we started with this career readiness initiative, probably about three years ago, and we began slowly with getting feedback from our advisory boards and companies and alumni about what are those skills and knowledge and experiences that students need to be career ready. We've been working with other business schools over the years to share information about programs and those types initiatives, but most of those, even in the business schools have been in only the career center, and so we wanted to really expand it beyond career management, and we created 12 overarching competencies that drive that road map for students. And the exciting thing is, is we actually started this last summer with our incoming freshmen class with the Sam's scavenger hunt to be able to get them sort of acclimated with this concept before they ever set foot on campus, and that was a really exciting new way to get them engaged before they started as a freshman.

0:13:37.8 Karen Boston: And then we extend that through the Freshman Business Connections program that all of our freshmen enroll in and begin that life design, that career readiness, and they began to develop their electronic portfolio and what we refer to as their Sam program. And Sam is our certainly a nod to Sam Walton, but also it represents students achieving milestones. And so they start that in the Freshman Business Connections Program, and they're exposed to all 12 competencies, and then we have created about 12 credentials right now that students can actually begin to earn. Right now, we have the freshman business connections badge, some supply chain initiatives, we also have a Let's Talk series, which is really exciting that we did last fall with racism, and in this spring we're doing one related to fraud. The other exciting part is that we're partnering with some of our companies. Companies are helping us to identify what career readiness competencies are important and which ones that they would want students to attain before maybe they interviewed them.

0:14:51.4 Matt Waller: You know, Karen, I would say this is one of my favorites as well. One aspect of this that I really like is that the students start developing a portfolio of what they're doing while they're in college, 'cause I think one of the challenges with knowing what you should do has to do with knowing what you've done, sometimes it's hard to keep all of that in your head, and you start seeing a path that you're going, so that's a really exciting program. Thank you for doing that.

0:15:26.0 Matt Waller: I know you're also working to just better align students within the college with the efforts we already have under way, there's all kinds of programs we have already to help students succeed and students just don't know about them a lot of times. I'll tell you just a quick funny story, I was... The first day of classes, I walk all of the halls and our three buildings, several times a day I talk to students, I talk to faculty, I talk to staff. And of course, because of COVID, the halls weren't as crowded this year as they normally are but there are still quite a few students 'cause we have a face-to-face component in many of our classes, but I went over to Walker Hall and I went into the foyer there where they have all the tables and seats out on the second floor, and there was a student there and I just went up and I started talking to him, never met him in my life.

0:16:29.3 Matt Waller: And this is really funny, and I found out that he was a junior, and I said, "Well, have you ever had an internship?" He said "No, but I want one." I said, "You might wanna talk to people in our Walton Career Services. Have you ever talked to them?" He said, "No." He said, "Where is it?" Well, for those of you listening that don't know the building the area I'm talking about, the Walton Career Services office is connected to that area so I just pointed. But here he was a junior. Now, some people know their first semester and they get engaged in this right away, but it's like a normal distribution, you have people all over it. But would you mind speaking to how that alignment might work and what's already available?

0:17:24.3 Karen Boston: You know, I think that one thing that we do poorly as the universities is trying to throw everything at a new freshman at orientation in an hour. And so it's really trying to think about what are the things that we want to introduce students to support that we wanna engage them in at what points in time, and so that they retain that information better and understand, "Oh yes, that's Walton Career Services is where I need to go for X, Y, or Z." But I do think that being able to have a broader understanding of the different units across the college, particularly those that serve our students, our student-facing units specifically, is trying to help create partnerships among all of us. I go back to this mapping out at what points do certain units engage with our students, how we can be much more methodical about these are the types of students that you want to engage with, this is where you go for that support, it's a little bit like being a traffic cop in terms of making sure that certain people are connecting and that having those conversations about how we can better serve our students, so.

0:18:42.6 Karen Boston: A good example of that is many years ago, when I started working closely Walton Career Services and the Business Communication lab, and they had been working very independently from one another, but think about how we leveraged each other, their Writing Center, Communication Lab, being able to help with cover letters and resumes, and partner with the career services office to help workshops and different things to do that. And so a good example of that is we now host a pitch perfect workshop, and that is really led by the Business Communication lab in collaboration with career services but helping students to create that elevator pitch, so to speak, when they're trying to sell themselves in a short time period to an employer, and so that's a great example, I think, of a partnership that they continue to this day.

0:19:35.5 Matt Waller: So Karen, the University of Arkansas has a Student Success Center that serves the entire community, and several colleges have student success initiatives of one type or another. How does that work together?

0:19:51.7 Karen Boston: There are several of us that have been meeting along with the Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Success at the university level on a fairly regular basis in trying to streamline these initiatives. Yeah, that's part of how Pearson and the math initiative came about, is engineering was doing it and I said, "We wanna do it," and it was an initiative at the university level, and so trying to be able to collaborate with those people in the different colleges and across campus, to align those efforts, again, going back to... So that everybody isn't reaching out to every student every time, and we really have more of a strategy behind that.

0:20:35.2 Matt Waller: For many years, you were Assistant Dean for Undergraduate Programs, and you were very focused on that piece of our business, but you got to see the whole... Everything we were doing from that vantage point, but because of all of your experience, especially in your role as Chief Student officer, you're looking at the whole student journey from beginning to end, so that really gave you a much broader perspective and you have to deal more cross-functionally now, than you've ever had to, but in addition to that, not only are you internally having to do it in college, you're having to do that within the university, and then externally with other companies, 'cause I know you deal with companies and other universities. Has it been enjoyable for you to make that kind of a transition, has it been challenging?

0:21:34.8 Karen Boston: Oh, it's absolutely been enjoyable to make that transition. There's a saying that Jeff Hood who's Assistant Dean for Undergraduate Programs now says, "There's some things you just gotta keep the trains on the track, the day-to-day of those types of things," and I did that for years, but I think definitely when you go beyond that and have more of a strategic approach about what's happening in so many different units or across campus or with external constituents, it really broadens your scope of understanding, but I would not replace what I had the experience to do 'cause it really helped me to understand the ins and outs of the student experience.

0:22:16.3 Matt Waller: Karen, before we close, what would you say to parents of students in the Walton College, including those that will be starting in the fall as freshmen as well as students themselves?

0:22:31.9 Karen Boston: Well, that's exciting for I think both you and me Matt 'cause we both have seniors in high school who are likely starting at the university, you've had other children go through, but this is my first and only... So it's a little bit different experience, but I would encourage parents to encourage their students to be alert, understand, be engaged. There's a lot going on, there's a lot going on, especially now, and probably even next fall with COVID, but I do think that the more students can be engaged and understand on their own what those opportunities are, and there are lots of people in Walton and across the university here to help them. When in doubt, I think the first place for students to come and waltz in or our parents to come is undergraduate programs, they definitely are the first line of helping students to navigate, whether it's schedule of classes or curriculum or something else, and at least can help direct them into the appropriate resource. I would as much as possible, encourage your students to take advantage of the opportunities that are there for them, because there are so many fantastic opportunities for our students, and we wanna help them succeed.


0:23:53.0 Matt Waller: Thanks for listening to today's episode of The Be Epic podcast from the Walton College. You can find us on Google, SoundCloud, iTunes, or look for us, wherever you find your podcast. Be sure to subscribe and rate us, you can find current and past episodes by searching, BeEpic podcast, one word, that's B-E-E-P-I-C podcast. And now be Be Epic.


Matt WallerMatthew A. Waller is the dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business, Sam M. Walton Leadership Chair and professor of supply chain management. He is also the host for the Be EPIC Podcast for Walton College.


Walton College's EPIC values -- Excellence, Professionalism, Innovation and Collegiality -- are the heart of Dean Waller’s podcast. Since the beginning of the series, Waller has interviewed business professionals, industry experts, CEOs and Walton College students to bring listeners first-hand accounts directly from the entrepreneurial world.


Waller is an SEC Academic Leadership Fellow and coauthor of “The Definitive Guide to Inventory Management: Principles and Strategies for the Efficient Flow of Inventory across the Supply Chain,” published by Pearson Education. He is the former co-editor-in-chief of Journal of Business Logistics. His opinion pieces have appeared in Wall Street Journal Asia and Financial Times.


Waller received an M.S. and Ph.D. from Pennsylvania State University and a B.S.B.A., summa cum laude, from the University of Missouri.

Walton College

Walton College of Business

Since its founding at the University of Arkansas in 1926, the Sam M. Walton College of Business has grown to become the state's premier college of business – as well as a nationally competitive business school. Learn more...

Be Epic Podcast

We're sitting down with innovators and business mavericks to discuss strategy, leadership and entrepreneurship. The Be EPIC Podcast is hosted by Matthew Waller, dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. Learn more...

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