Award-winning engineering manager redefining student success in a world of unknowns

Every day, Shannon Wagner, Manager of Student Success Initiatives for the Walter Scott, Jr. College of Engineering, works with students at different points in their lives.

Shannon Wagner, Manager of Student Success Initiatives, Walter Scott, Jr. College of Engineering. Photo Credit: John Eisele, Colorado State University
Shannon Wagner, Manager of Student Success Initiatives, Walter Scott, Jr. College of Engineering. Photo Credit: John Eisele, Colorado State University

They are filled with the normal anxieties of starting a new chapter. Students are sometimes far from home, away from their families and friends. Often they are working extra hours a week to support their own families, while balancing heavy class loads. Success is already challenging as an engineering student, and in a new world of pandemics those problems are magnified tenfold.

That is where Wagner comes in. From day-to-day needs to future life goals, her passion helps students and their families succeed despite a complex and anxiety-filled world.

“The big picture for me is, is the student happy? Are they engaging in things that bring them joy?” said Wagner. “It really depends on the student what success looks like. Right now I think they want some knowns in the world of unknowns.”

An award for her efforts

A major university award is a testament to her work toward student success. She was honored with a 2020 Distinguished Administrative Professional Award from CSU’s Administrative Professional Council, one of five given each year across the university. The award recognizes administrative professionals with continuing meritorious and outstanding achievement in the areas of operational efficiency, leadership and mentoring, innovation, and the Principles of Community.

Anthony Marchese, associate dean for Academic and Student Affairs for the college, cites Wagner’s unflagging focus on access to engineering for all students, including international students and those trying to decide on a major.

“She toils behind the scenes, and doesn’t get a lot of accolades,” said Marchese, “but keeps pushing forward to focus on the students. It was great to see her finally rewarded for those efforts.”

Bringing in students from outside engineering

Wagner started her position almost four years ago with a wall of challenges in front of her. With little access to engineering advisors for those outside the college and major-specific prerequisites, undeclared and underrepresented students with engineering interests were often shut out.

In an average year, hundreds of students enter the university as “Undeclared-Engineering Interest,” but less than three percent find their way into engineering. She began working towards solutions, starting with developing connections around campus.

“It was like they were outside looking in the windows, wanting to know if this was really where they wanted to live and be, and no one’s inviting them in,” she said. “I took that to heart, and for me the access piece is an important part of our mission at CSU.”

The Collaborative for Student Achievement started referring undeclared students to her, opening up an avenue for students who might not have otherwise had easy access to the college.

Working closely with students

Working directly with prospective students, especially transfer students from community colleges, provided a deeper level of access. Part of Wagner’s efforts included working with her team to create an undeclared engineering interest section within the Engineering Residential Learning Community. That allowed students to live among others with engineering interests.

She began inviting undeclared majors to Engineering 101, a first-year class featuring grand challenges and engineering basics. At the end of that first semester, the performance of the undeclared students was indistinguishable from engineering students who had previously declared a major.

She also worked to make Intra-University 172 available to undeclared students, increasing their chances of joining engineering. The class is a 1-credit seminar for undeclared engineering-interest students that provides resources and skills for student success.

“Students and family members have commented that they appreciate that the community is inclusive and allows non-majors in,” she said. “Bringing them into the fold and having them alongside peers inspires and motivates them.”

“It was like they were outside looking in the windows, wanting to know if this was really where they wanted to live and be, and no one’s inviting them in.”

Student life in a new world

Wagner’s compassionate efforts go a long way with the added pressure of the COVID-19 pandemic on students. Her main concern is orientation for new and transfer students, which normally kicks off on campus each June.

Orientation is an important first step in a student’s college life, and Wagner and her staff are working to turn it into an online-only experience. It is a balance of having many pieces to navigate that have been offered in-person for years, but not increase student anxieties.

Students have had high school graduations cancelled, personal connections stripped away because of distancing measures, and stress related to the health of family members. Wagner and her team are honoring where students are at in their journey, and are spending more time adding a personal touch with students and families.

She recently had a long chat with an incoming student and their family. Wagner helped ease concerns about hall placement, housing applications, and the general anxiety that comes with moving to a new school half a continent away. More than that, Wagner said the student just needed a bit more humanity right now.

“Going into the summer and fall, it’s really going to be helping people feel comfortable and secure, and knowing what’s working for them,” she said. “It’s listening closely and checking in with them, and providing some human contact even if it’s just to say ‘we’re here for you.’”