Academic Innovation Annual Report • 2020-2021


The Forge Your Own Path strategy is an evolution of Pitt’s Personalized Education Initiative. It helps to prepare students for lives of self-determined impact through educational experiences tailored to each student's specific goals and needs. This vision rests on the integration and interdependency of four core components: people, tools, information, and infrastructure. The primary directive of the Academic Innovation Team in the Office of the Provost – Undergraduate Studies is to bring the vision to life by creating both capacity and leverage at the unit level through cross-departmental initiatives, resources, and collaborations.  

Mentoring and Advising, Student Toolbox, Resources, Community Engagement, People, Tools, Information, Infrastructure, Forge Your Own Path

Our Team

 Julia Spears, PhD, Associate Vice Provost for Academic Innovation; April Belback, Director of Undergraduate Advising and Mentoring; Lisa Belczyk, Program Manager, Digital Engagement Initiatives; Gloria Mou, Project Manager,  Academic Innovation; Olivia Hartle Project Manager,  Academic Innovation; Abby Andrasko, Student Intern; Jacob Margasak, Student Intern; Liz Jones, Graduate Fellow, University of Michigan; Brett Soltysiak, Graduate Intern; Shutong Song, Graduate Intern, Assessment & Research

Flex @ Pitt

We were proud to support efforts across campus to operationalize Flex @ Pitt. This included helping to develop and maintain the following resources:

The Academic Innovation Team also helped support the institution of the "OTP Hold" by coordinating across the University with the Office of Admissions and Financial Aid (OAFA), New Student Programs, and the academic units.

In preparation for the fall, we partnered with and provided support to many important initiatives across campus, including:

  • Participating in Student Affairs Town Halls and the Welcome Week Parent Panels for Academic Success 
  • Volunteering for numerous call center shifts and outreach, answering student calls and responding to emails
  • Creating "Welcome Back" videos from Provost Ann E. Cudd to returning undergraduate and graduate students
  • Helping to develop Fall 2020 student questionnaire 
  • Facilitating the  Graduate Mental Health Listening Session for International Students 
  • Providing technical support for the Middle States Open Forum on Accreditation 

Student Technology Resources for Academic Engagement

The Academic Innovation Team provides support to units and departments across campus that are working on cutting-edge, university-wide, technology-focused solutions for students. The Academic Innovation Team is responsible for providing leadership to three of the Student Technology Resources for Academic Engagement: the Catalog of Opportunities, Pitt Commons, and Pitt TutorOcean. These projects are detailed below. 

Canvas, Catalog of Opportunities, Pitt Commons, PeopleSoft/HighPoint Campus Experience (CX), Pitt TutorOcean, Pathways Navigate

Catalog of Opportunities 

Powered by Suitable, Pitt's Catalog of Opportunities offers students the ability to find, track, and share co-curricular activities and achievements in areas such as Business, Global, Honors, Outside the Classroom Curriculum (OCC), and more. In addition, through coordination with the Pathways platform, we inform advisors of student engagement to enable a more holistic advising experience.

Some of the major milestones we reached this year include:

  • Completing Phase 1: Integration between existing program dashboards (Global, Business, Honors, and OCC)  
  • Completing Phase 2: Soft launch, providing tiered access for staff, faculty, and students as contributors, publishers, and advisors
  • Completing Phase 3: Synced the Catalog to the University calendar 
  • Launching syncing/integration with Pathways
  • Conducting a student focus group to collect feedback
  • Presenting to numerous departments and units across campus, including the Council of Deans and Office of Admissions and Financial Aid  
  • Launching the Catalog of Opportunities website  
  • Creating onboarding videos 
  • Hosting monthly Steering Committee Meetings to further develop core competencies

Pitt Commons  


One of the most significant accomplishments this year was having Pitt Commons selected as the signature Pitt project for the multi-institute Taskforce on Higher Education and Opportunities that works to promote student success, partner with local communities, and reimagine education. Part of Pitt’s involvement will be the formation of the Early Career Alumni Employment and Networking Community Initiative, which will use the Pitt Commons platform to expand existing resources by providing mentorship and networking experience to individuals who lack access to traditional networks. Read "Partnership Boosts Pitt Commons" for more information.

Also new this year were numerous advancements and feature launches:

  • Launched Projects on Pitt Commons, which connected hundreds of recent graduates and current students with short-term, virtual learning projects to help them launch successful careers
  • Presented our successes in Projects on Pitt Commons as part of a panel in a national webinar in September 2020
  • Launched a multi-year data analysis project intended to more deeply understand the needs, wants, and preferences of the Pitt community when it comes to mentoring and networking in a digital space
  • Supported the Classes of 2020 and 2021 in their post-graduation transitions with specialized mentoring programs, matching them with eager alumni willing to provide support
  • Held numerous flash mentoring sessions, including formally partnering with the School of Social Work and the School of Education, and connected hundreds of students with a mentor from the Pitt community 
  • Established a Graduate Student Orientation/Welcome Group on Pitt Commons 
  • Presented about Pitt Commons at the Mentorship in Higher Ed Roundtable on July 29, 2020
  • Launched a new formal mentoring program on Pitt Commons: International Careers Mentoring Program 
  • Continued holding "Pitt Commons Office Hours" twice a month to provide support to students, staff, and faculty using the platform
  • Earned recognition for co-curricular value by being added as part of the OCC/PASN badge 
  • Featured as part of the re-launched Pitt Alumni Career Network 
  • Partnered with the Career Center to present at Internship Week on February 2
  • Presented a session and hosted a virtual lounge at the Mentoring and Advising Summit 
  • Served on the Fostering Virtual Community Taskforce as part of the University's COVID-19 response
  • Launched a year-long communications plan to develop alumni usage and engagement on the platform
  • Developed a module for the Pitt ACT program to introduce academic advisors to the benefits and features of integrating Pitt Commons into their advising process
  • Partnered with the Career Center to integrate Pitt Commons into the career counseling advising process

Pitt TutorOcean

The Office of the Provost and Pitt IT partnered to provide the Pitt community with better tools for tutoring and academic support by contracting with TutorOcean to present a new platform for students, advisors, mentors, and instructors. Pitt TutorOcean provides an online learning space suitable for all types of subjects: math, writing, languages, computer programming, chemistry, and more. Students can comfortably interact virtually with tutors, peers, advisors, and instructors in a uniquely equipped virtual learning space. A collaborative whiteboard allows both parties to work together on materials in real-time. Either party can share files before, during, and after the live session. All marked-up materials and whiteboards can be downloaded for reference.

Pitt TutorOcean interface

Ongoing Convening of Advisors and Mentors

This year April Belback led the launch of the University Undergraduate Advising Committee (UUAC). The UUAC meets monthly with the aim to enhance the practice of advising and mentoring at the University of Pittsburgh by sharing ideas, best practices, and information for undergraduate academic advisors and mentors. The UUAC is comprised of four groups: Directors of Advising Standing Subcommittee, Faculty Mentoring and Advising Standing Subcommittee, Student Subcommittee and UUAC All-Group. 

Also this year, April Belback led the launch of the Pitt Mentoring and Advising Community Circles (PMACC). The PMACCs are groups of undergraduate mentors and advisors across Pitt who share a common interest or experience. The goal of the PMACCs is to build professional networks, communities, and knowledge around a common interest or experience in advising and mentoring undergraduate students.  Each PMACC also has a specific goal statement in relation to that community's interest or experience.  

This year also saw the growth of the Advising and Student Success Networked Improvement Community (NIC). The NIC is composed of teams working to strengthen advising practices within and across undergraduate units at the University. The Office of the Provost offers continued support with guided activities meant to identify a shared problem of practice and work toward change cycles to address individual solutions. In this way, we are facilitating an engine of learning and change within an NIC framework to focus expertise from a variety of sectors on a common challenge around academic advising and student success. This approach improves education at a scale by building an evidence base about productive practices and knowledge of implementation processes to address persistent problems of practice and policy. This year, we continued to focus student college transitions, but decided to think more specifically around FERPA in advising interactions with both students and parents.

Mentoring and Advising Workshops

The Office of the Provost brought together 228 advisors and mentors from the University in a series of virtual workshops and opportunities to learn about relevant issues and guide meaningful conversations.

Program Impact Project 

The Program Impact Project is a research initiative aimed at better understanding the landscape at the University of Pittsburgh for support of first-generation, limited-income, and under-represented minority students. With the inauguration of the Pitt Success Pell Match Program and the Provost Academy, in addition to the many existing affordability initiatives, Pitt has made great efforts to support our students in gaining access to and better affording college at Pitt. At Pitt, we are committed to supporting every single one of our students and know there must also be supports in place beyond the access and transition to college phases for our students to be successful. We recognize that some students stand to benefit from additional access to resources and programs that allow them to fully integrate and thrive at Pitt. While we know many programs are doing this thoughtful work, we sought to better understand if students have the level of support needed for the changing demographic of students coming to Pitt.

Thus, with the help of program directors, we conducted a review and evaluation of Pitt’s existing programs so that we could (1) identify all programs already in place, (2) explore how intersections of this work might occur, and (3) identify gaps (if any) in services needed to support our students. In August, we collected updates and data from program directors. From September through November, the researcher ran an analysis of the data. In December, the findings were shared at the Provost's Cabinet meeting. Read the Program Impact Project report.

Pitt Advising Certification and Training Program (Pitt ACT)

The University of Pittsburgh Advising Certification and Training Program (Pitt ACT) is a suite of online onboarding and training materials designed for faculty and staff at Pitt who work with students in an advising and mentoring capacity, the main goal of which is to help standardize the practice of advising and mentoring across Pitt. The project is funded by a Pitt Seed Grant and is a large-scale collaboration between the Office of the ProvostThe University Center for Teaching and Learning, and undergraduate academic and advising units across the University.

This year's accomplishments include: 

  • Convening the Advisor Training Workgroup to work on the curriculum of the Pitt ACT program
  • Launching the Advising and Mentoring Foundations Level Training (six modules) for feedback and review
  • Creating a library of videos for advisors 
  • Introducing the program at the 2021 Mentoring and Advising Summit 

Pitt ACT will officially launch in Summer 2021.

Watch the Pitt ACT Program Introduction from Provost Ann E. Cudd

Pitt Seed Grant Operationalization

The operationalization of the Pitt Seed Grants continues to be a highlight of the Forge Your Own Path initiative. In the 2020-2021 academic year, we launched a new cycle of Pitt Seed Grants and onboarded 11 projects. We also improved our support offerings by launching a new monthly "office hours" opportunity for grantees to drop in and ask questions, share updates, or chat. In recognition of the continued impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, we developed a new policy creating an extension process for grantees who need additional time and/or support to complete their projects. 

We also continued to partner with University Marketing and Communications to develop a high-impact communication plan and new marketing assets. In addition to developing monthly grantee spotlights for the Pitt Seed and Forge Your Own Path Grants, we worked with an external vendor to create 13 Pitt Seed Project Highlight Videos, which give a short snapshot of the amazing work of our grantees. 

In December, nearly 100 Pitt Seed Project members gathered virtually for an End-of-Year Reflection with Chancellor Patrick Gallagher and Provost Ann E. Cudd. The event was an opportunity for Pitt Seed team members to reflect on their accomplishments and look toward the future.

Attendees of the Pitt Seed Yearend Event

Grant News and Spotlights

Transcript Distinctions 

In partnership with the Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation, our team helped lead the launch of a new interdisciplinary transcript distinction in Sustainability. The primary goals of the Sustainability distinction are to provide students with a mechanism to gain recognition and “credit” for their outside-the-classroom endeavors and broaden the number of undergraduate students participating in sustainability activities throughout campus. Read "Sustainability Distinction Now Available for Undergraduates" Pittwire.

The Sustainability distinction joins two other previously launched distinctions: Global and Honors. To streamline the administrative process, the Academic Innovation Team partnered with the Global, Honors, and Sustainability distinction teams to integrate an automatic enrollment process for all distinctions through Suitable platform (which also hosts the Catalog of Opportunities). 

Community Engaged Scholarship Forum 

On March 2, the Office of the Provost provided support to the Community Engaged Scholarship Forum (CESF) a virtual celebration of the diversity and impact of community-engaged work at Pitt and in the surrounding region. Read the CESF recap in Pittwire.

Panelists at the Community Engaged Scholarship Forum

Mentoring and Advising Summit

On Thursday, March 11, nearly 1,000 people from more than 100 institutions across the country gathered virtually at the 2021 Mentoring and Advising Summit.

Highlights included:

  • More than 20 breakout sessions led by Pitt faculty, staff, researchers, and students and organized by tracks and themes;
  • A fireside chat with Ann E. Cudd, Provost and Senior Vice Chancellor, and Darris Means, Associate Professor, School of Education;
  • Roundtable conversation with national experts from the Advising Success Network, highlighting the national conversation on advising and student success ––Pitt’s “Forge Your Own Path Strategy” was showcased as a high-impact academic advising initiative designed to advance equitable student success in the recently published volume of case studies;
  • Insights from Jillian Kinzie from the National Survey of Student Engagement on "Doing Academic Advising Well: Findings about Advising Practice at Research Universities";
  • Preliminary findings from Tyton Partners' 2021 Driving Toward Degree Report; and
  • Opportunities for informal conversation, connection, and networking.

Thank you to our partners and co-sponsors: Reinvention CollaborativePitt AthleticsUnpack UThe JED Foundation, and PeopleGrove.

Thank you to the Mentoring and Advising Planning Committee, a group that includes representatives from across the University: April Belback (Chair), Julia Spears (Co-Chair), Lisa Belczyk, Amanda Brodish, Joel Brady, Larissa Ciuca, Olivia Hartle, Jill Harvey, Stephanie Hoogendoorn, David Hornyak, Alicia Kemp, Stephen Kilpatrick, Chris Kirchof, Susan Meyer, Gloria Mou, Jesse Mullen, Kristine Pugliese, John Ramirez, Tilly Sheets, Brett Soltysiak, Ryan Sweeny and Bailey Tobias. 

The session recordings are available on our website and the event was covered in Pittwire.

Video previews for Summit videos

Degree Finder

In 2021, the Academic Innovation Team led the launch of Degree Finder, a new tool for current and prospective graduate and undergraduate students to search, filter, and find the degree program at Pitt that is right for them. This is an ongoing project, and we will continue to update and refine the site and add functionality in the filtering and search options. 

Feedback on Degree Finder can be submitted through this form. Be sure to include the specific URL of the page for which you are providing feedback.

Degree Finder web interface


In partnership with the Assistant Provost for Strategic Communications and Communications Director in the Office of the Provost, we produced and disseminated a monthly Forge Your Own Path Newsletter to a mailing list of 3,200 people. In our monthly newsletter, we shared project updates, news, grant spotlights, and amplified other initiatives taking place across campus. In addition, we developed a strategic communications plan for advising and mentoring messaging, through which April Belback connected with advisors and mentors three times per semester to offer reminders, resources, tips and support during the busiest times of the term (add/drop period, mid-term, and end of term).

Also in partnership with the Office of the Provost team, we supported the launch of an updated Gallup Report webpage, which reflects the findings of the completed four-year report. 


See the Academic Innovation Annual Report for academic year 2019-2020 »