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Journey mapping the student experience with the UNCF CPI cohort

This winter, we are working with our UNCF CPI  member institutions to launch pilots that will inspire institutional transformation and enhance career outcomes for graduates. Pilots are slated to launch in Fall 2019. For us at the Lab, an essential first step to fostering innovation in higher education is through building empathy for the student population. As a result, we led our UNCF CPI colleagues through an exercise in mapping the student experience. Journey mapping helps faculty and administrators to better empathize with student needs, while identifying opportunities to better support students through their academic and personal journeys.


Our CPI institutions are focused on developing concepts in one of three focus areas:

  • Foundational Education:  curriculum re-design, identification of gateway courses and first and second year experiences that pose barriers to progression for students
  • Faculty Development: approaches used to assist faculty in better understanding the skills and competencies needed in the workforce, and to aid faculty in aligning and delivering curriculum to address those identified needs
  • Workforce Development: approaches to strengthen linkages between college majors and careers, such as the development of strategic workforce partnerships


Setting up the journey map
Informed by interviews with students, faculty, and administrators, we created a persona of an “extreme” student user, Erica Taylor (See photo). While fictitious, Erica’s persona is based on a composite of HBCU student experiences. Her story is intentionally complicated, which encourages participants to think critically about opportunities to support her as a means to support all students. She entered college as a business major, comes from a nearby high school with limited resources, has a lot of potential, feels underprepared for college, commutes from home and works part-time to save money, is the first in her family to attend college and feels a lot of pressure to succeed.


[ Download the Journey Map template ]


What did the journey map show us?
Institutional administrators and faculty mapped out the major milestones and key steps along Erica’s journey from her decision to apply to college through five years after graduation. They then mapped the emotions associated with each milestone (e.g. anxiety when applying to school, confusion when picking a major, jubilation at graduation, and uncertainty out in the “real world”). Did we find blind spots and sticking points? You bet.

Based on the journey maps, we saw a few trends:

  • Post-Graduation Uncertainty:  Shifting the mindset from the institution to the student is a key benefit of journey mapping. Some faculty and staff found it challenging to think through Erica’s experience beyond graduation. This is not uncommon for colleges and universities, as success metrics tend to focus on institutional ability to retain and graduate students broadly, with limited focus on students and their entry into the labor market or success beyond college. Some participants commented on the experiences of recent graduates having to pay back student student debt. Many students don’t know how to navigate this important post-college milestone, and few campus programs or initiatives prepare students to deal with that. Outside of homecoming and similar alumni engagement events, there exists an opportunity to not only support young alumni but also to leverage them as mentors and guides for undergraduates and to aid help their alma mater deepen its career development focus. 
  • Career Exploration:  While employment was a clear success metric for students upon graduation, participants observed gaps in campus programs that built sustainable connections between students and employers. Students shoulder a lot of responsibility in pursuing internships, externships, and even job preparation, although the journey map did illuminate key opportunities where institutions could hardwire these connections more intentionally for their students. 
  • Workforce Development:  For as long as we can remember, we have assumed that students inherently develop important workforce skills, such as critical thinking, through a traditional curriculum grounded in an exploration of the liberal arts. Yet, there’s no visible metric to measure how students have grown (or, in some cases, may need to grow) in these skill areas. Students may be developing 21st century skills, but they are not aware of how that is occurring within the traditional general education curriculum. More notably, they also are not being given the language to market themselves and their skills to employers. Participating faculty and staff identified opportunities to establish metrics each year to assess where students are in their 21st century skill development, which will be interesting to explore in tandem with delivery of the core curriculum.  In addition, institutions recognized the need to build and strengthen relationships with employers to better understand and align curriculum with industry needs.

Cohort institutions translated the blind spots and sticking points into opportunities, to inform their pilots. Examples of next steps developed as a result of the journey map exercise:

  • Intentionally embed career planning into first and second year courses. Include faculty professional development to guide students through 21st century skills building.
  • Develop milestones for students to develop 21st century skills by certain points in their academic career. Embed a visible metric to measure and display skills earned.


Final Reflection
Through the journey mapping exercise, we observed that design thinking is providing our CPI faculty and administrators a means to better understand the student experience, to build greater empathy for how they are navigating key milestones (academically and emotionally), and to identify where opportunities may exist to intervene and support students all the way through and beyond graduation. While the journey map itself was eye-opening, the conversations that it sparked about rethinking the role of the institution in the student journey were even more exciting! We look forward to even more insights after we conclude our ACCELERATE! Design Sessions with the remaining CPI institutions this coming January on the campus of Norfolk State University in Norfolk, Virginia.

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