From the College of Humanities and Social Sciences
Taylor Halversen

Taylor Halversen gave a talk titled “The Conversion” as part of the university’s TEDx conference in November. She was the only student presenter and discussed the importance of challenging students and giving them the opportunity to rise to the occasion.

Using Her Voice

By Kristen Munson

Taylor Halversen stood in the spotlight at the Chase Fine Arts Center and paced across the stage, touting the power of student potential. She was one of eight speakers and performers at the university’s TEDx Conference in November 2012 and the only student presenter. Halversen, a rather opinionated junior double majoring in liberal arts and communication studies, described her experience at Utah State and outlined the needs of college students today.

“I recognize that not very many students get this opportunity to speak to such a large group of people who are here to listen,” she began. “However, this has been somewhat of a consistent theme for me throughout my education—people listening. People creating an environment where I have been heard, where I have had the opportunity to flourish, and grow in everything that I have done.”

Halversen’s talk “The Conversion” chronicled how one experimental class provided her with the focus, tools, and opportunity to create something truly original. The experience taught her that most students are like her—potential in search of direction—and must be tested to really comprehend their abilities.

“Students need to find these environments that will push them,” she told the audience. “The faculty need to create them…Allow them to articulate their voice. They will rise to the challenge. More than that, administration needs to listen as they did here at Utah State University because when they did it was magical.”

It all began over email Halversen’s freshman year when a course listing appeared in her inbox. The message was vague; a pilot design class was being offered on a pass/fail basis to a handful of Honors students with the caveat that it would not count for credit towards their majors. At the time, Halversen didn’t have one and felt lost. She enrolled because it seemed like a good place to start finding her path.

“I don’t know why, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it,” Halversen said. “It was probably the luckiest thing that ever happened to me…it taught me how to think big.”

The 15 students participating in Design Studio were tasked with studying how undergraduates navigate the university, and then they employed principles of design thinking to streamline it. The class was co-taught by Jennifer Peeples, associate professor of speech communication, and instructors from the Business Innovation Factory (BIF), a nonprofit focused on innovation in areas of high social impact. It was funded through a grant from Lumina Foundation for Education to study how students track their academic progress, utilize university resources, and articulate the skills and competencies they learn in college. To do this, the people most affected by the research were enlisted to tackle the problem: students. The course culminated with a presentation to university leaders with recommendations to transform the system.

“I don’t think anyone understood what we were going to do. Our teachers didn’t even know,” Halversen said. “Because it pulled me out of my comfort zone so much I was able to develop skills I didn’t know I had.”

The students broke into teams and interviewed their peers and personnel university-wide. There was no red-tape. After dozens of interviews a common thread appeared; a disconnect existed between what resources and services the university provided and which students knew about and utilized. At the close of the course, Halversen’s team unveiled a proposal to develop an online tool to simplify the student experience by merging existing resources onto one website that was interactive and personalized for each student. Vice President of Student Services James Morales was in the audience. And he was impressed. Afterward his office sponsored a continuation of the course for students to build prototypes of an e-student services site and make it a reality. Morales tapped staff to investigate how the designs could be developed into a workable model. Halversen signed on for the second iteration.

The students spent the 2011 spring semester creating three prototypes that were customizable and designed with a user’s changing needs over time. They beta tested the models on their peers. The prototype Halversen’s group devised was organized into three hubs of information, including academics, resources, and social life, and based on interactive gaming principles. Users could sync their social calendars and view a progress bar that reflected their status towards graduation.

“We are going to take what you’ve given us to move into implementation phase,” Morales told students at the final presentation. “This was our goal all along. This is not just an experiment up in the clouds. Whatever we develop, we want to honor all the great work you did.”

Halversen was one of three students asked to serve as student advisors as the project moved forward. The university hired a project manager in December to continue the efforts and the new site called MyUSU should enter beta testing this summer and come online this fall—just in time for Halversen’s younger sister to use it as a freshman. Had a tool like this been available her first year, it would have saved her time and stress, Halversen said. Without older siblings to ask about college, she arrived at Utah State without really understanding what it all meant.

“I didn’t realize a major was a conglomerate of classes,” Halversen said. “I thought that it was what you were supposed to be for the rest of your life. I didn’t even register that [college] was school...I thought it was this place where you got a syringe in you and you got knowledge and you came out and you were an adult. My whole life I had been preparing to just have that syringe and be gone.”

Much of her first semester, Halversen ran on raw energy and fear. She changed majors several times and operated under the mantra don’t fail, do good, she said. “It was a strong motivation. Now I am trying to find a better motivation to do things—not fear. I’m trying to do it because I love to do things, which is hard to discover going into your senior year.”

In some ways, taking Design Studio has worked for and against Halversen because her introduction to the university was through an effort to change it. While the unconventional course showed her firsthand how transforming education can be, afterward she went through a period of withdrawal trying to find a new outlet to harness her energy.

“We created something,” Halversen said. “I thrive on that. I learned a different way to think because of this class. It has changed my whole way of learning…I was really spoiled coming in and having that be my first experience at Utah State. At the beginning it was really good because I went into this being able to point out any problem and challenge it so that I wasn’t sucked into this vortex of I am just a number.”

But she also knows what is possible and it bothers her when she runs into obstacles that can be fixed, but aren’t. For instance, Halversen argues more flexibility is needed in the curriculum for students who want to enroll in classes outside their majors and colleges.

“They also need a personalized experience,” Halversen said. “It’s not just about the attention that each student gets; it’s about the experience that each student gets. And I think that is something that’s not being looked into.”

She aims to spend her senior year gaining technical skills. The Design Studio class taught her to think big. With the acquisition of hard skills, she wants to be able to put her ideas into action, she said. “I want to continually be an advocate for change…I think that’s going to be the next focus for me—learning these different avenues so I can use my voice.”