Feb. 8, 2017
CWU alumna helps students overcome obstacles, develop direction and determination
From the day a freshman student arrives on campus to the day he or she leaves with a degree, CWU is committed to making sure they have access to a variety of resources needed to succeed. Many of those resources are directed through the office of the Dean of Student Success.
They include such areas as academic advising, career services, disability services, student recreation, health and counseling, housing, wellness, and academic success initiatives.
“I have always worked with students who have struggled academically,” says Carolyn Thurston, Central Washington University’s Academic Success Initiatives director.
However, despite her title, Thurston’s work often involves issues unrelated to a student’s academics, such as an illness at home or problems with a roommate.
“I help facilitate problem-solving for students for whom there is no other immediate resolution,” Thurston adds, equating her position to one of an Ombuds for students. “I assist students with identifying their issues, available resources, and how they might resolve them directly themselves. It’s often very difficult to isolate one, simple, academic issue.”
Thurston has an extensive background in both academic advising and student support services. After initially enrolling at CWU to study art—painting, specifically—she earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English.
In 1997, Thurston was hired as English Specialist in the Academic Skills Program. Five years later, she became an academic advisor in TRiO Student Support Services.
She went on to create and, in 2007, launch the Student Transitions and Academic Resources (STAR) program, which provides intensive support to certain at-risk college students, who may otherwise not have had the chance to pursue higher education.
“It was designed to admit and provide intensive support to students who had some huge life events beyond their control affect their academic performance before they got to college. It was very, very rewarding,” Thurston acknowledges, after directing the program for eight years. “They [the STAR students] stay in touch with me. I have many, many Facebook friends who are former STARs. They’re still STARs, in my mind.”
In addition, Thurston is trained in basic, family, and victim-offender mediation, is a mediation trainer and instructor and served for several years as a board member, mediation trainer, and volunteer with the Dispute Resolution Center of Yakima and Kittitas Counties.
She also finds time to teach the university’s Basic Mediation class as an adjunct CWU law and justice faculty member.
Thurston makes use of her well-honed conflict resolution skills in helping faculty, staff, and students resolve problems, while facilitating academic success initiatives, and, ultimately, supporting students toward degree completion.
Thurston has found technology to aid in her efforts, including the web-based academic “early alert” system, with which CWU faculty can notify students and their advisors that a student is struggling in a particular class.
“It’s a communication tool that helps us to reach out to students—who may not know, or have not had a conversation with their instructors—to know that they are having difficulties,” Thurston explains. “The alert also goes to the students’ advisors, who can then make sure they are connected to the resources they need, such as Disability Services, which ensures that qualifying students are provided with appropriate accommodations—such as extended time on tests—providing students with equal access to success.”
Despite growing up as the daughter of a highly-regarded fifth-grade classroom teacher in Tacoma, Thurston never envisioned herself working in education.
“It wasn’t until I was a graduate student in the English department, teaching English 101, that I landed in a classroom and found that I have many of the same characteristics as my father,” Thurston recalls. “I loved teaching. I cared about whether students learned and I cared about whether they were having a good time. Because, most of the time, we don’t learn, if we’re not having a good time.”
Those same traits—care for student learning and respect for their overall well-being—remain her focus.
“I love working with students and the individual nature of what I do,” Thurston points out. “Every student is different, so there is a certain amount of creativity in helping students identify what kinds of interventions will be best for them. You have to be open to something beyond a ‘cookie-cutter’ approach.”
Even so, Thurston says, “all of life is school” and she has one maxim that she offers all of her students.
“I tell them, ‘There are no mistakes; whatever you choose, there will be a lesson,’” she says. “They’re here answering the big questions in life: ‘Who am I?’; ‘What do I care about?’; ‘What do I value?’; ‘How will I support myself?’ They’re questions we all have to answer.”
Media contact: Robert Lowery, director of radio services and integrated communications, 509-963-1487, Robert.Lowery@cwu.edu
Editor’s note: Ellensburg Community Radio (http://eburgradio.org/) helped provide content for the development of this article.