Academic Innovation Annual Report • 2019-2020


The Forge Your Own Path strategy is an evolution of Pitt’s Personalized Education Initiative. It aims to prepare students for lives of self-determined impact through educational experiences tailored to the specific goals and needs of each student. 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 Undergraduate Studies is to bring the vision to life by creating capacity and leverage at the unit level through cross-departmental initiatives, resources, and collaborations.  

Our Year in Numbers

Our Team 

The Academic Innovation Team kicked off the 2019-2020 academic year with a team retreat co-hosted by Joseph McCarthy, Vice Provost for Undergraduate Studies, and Julia Spears, Associate Vice Provost for Academic Innovation. Using human-centered design methods, we set a series of individual and team goals and charted a path to complete them. A favorite activity of our team is "What's On Your Radar?"—a visual mapping exercise to organize items within a given scope based on how important or relevant they are considered to be. We revisited our "radar screen" multiple times throughout the year to realign priorities, add new items, and celebrate our successes. 

COVID-19 Response
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, we joined the rest of the University community—and the world—in the pivot to remote operations. In addition to continuing our regular day-to-day functions, we welcomed the opportunity to support numerous special projects while #HailingFromHome

While the massive transformation the world saw in 2020 brought unprecedented change, we were proud to link arms with faculty, staff, students, and alumni from around the globe to help achieve a tremendous amount of success in continuing to advance the University's core mission. 

Mentoring and Advising Workshop Series 

The Office of the Provost brought together 233 advisors and mentors from around the University in a series of workshops and opportunities to learn about relevant issues and guide meaningful conversations.

Pitt Commons 

The Pitt Commons networking and mentoring website continued to grow and develop during the 2019-2020 academic year. It is our pleasure to partner closely with the Office of Philanthropic and Alumni and Engagement on this important initiative. Registered users on Pitt Commons surpassed 6,000 individuals and are increasing daily. Pitt students, alumni, faculty, staff, and postdocs are welcome to join this online community to provide guidance, support, and advice for all things career-related! 

In celebration of National Mentoring Month in January, we posted weekly updates on Pitt Commons with information, resources, and helpful tips on how to be a mentee and mentor. All month long, we paired interested students with alumni, faculty, and staff for a flash mentoring meeting—a quick mentorship-based chat designed to showcase the opportunities that are available in these important relationships. In April and May, we hosted additional flash mentoring events to support the graduating class of 2020. Students were paired with alumni in their fields for support in navigating the challenging job market and making valuable professional connections. 

The Pitt Commons team supported platform users through a variety of opportunities this year. From twice-monthly open office hours and workshops, to monthly newsletters with helpful tips, to virtual trainings during our time of remote working, users received assistance and answers to all of their Pitt Commons questions. The team will continue and expand these offerings during the next academic year as the community on the platform continues to grow and evolve. Additional future programming includes developing online mentoring spaces for schools and departments across all Pitt campuses, recruitment and admissions support, cultivating regional connections for students and alums who are relocating, and more.  

Pitt Seed and Forge Your Own Path Grants

The operationalization of the Pitt Seed Grants and the Forge Your Own Path Grants continues to be a highlight of the Forge Your Own Path initiative. In 2019-2020, we managed five full grant cycles: the third year of the Pitt Seed and Forge Your Own Path grants, two cycles of Forge Your Own Path grants for students, and a Pitt Seed Special Cycle on the Prevention of Sexual Misconduct. In addition to the ongoing administration of the 98 Pitt Seed and Forge Your Own Path grants, we were thrilled to offer 10 Lunch and Learn opportunities for grantees to network and learn about one another's work.

Lunch & Learn: Pitt Seed Grants

Lunch & Learn: Forge Your Own Path Grants

Grant News and Spotlights


On July 25, 2019, we hosted an event for advisors titled, Integrating Academic and Career Development. The agenda included a welcome from Provost Ann Cudd; a presentation of the results of a University-wide advising landscape analysis; a presentation by EAB on trends, strategies and best practices for integrating academic and career development; and a working session using human-centered design to synthesize learnings from the session and develop real-time application.

Also on July 25, 2019, we hosted a special kickoff event for the Provost’s Student Success Researcher/Practitioner Collaborative. Provost Cudd led the event and it served as the formal kickoff for the group's work to draw upon the research expertise of the campus community to ensure the most highly effective and evidence-based work is being practiced and replicated across our campuses.

On July 26, 2019, we produced the Provost’s Roundtable Discussion on Equity and Diversity in Education with Claude Steele, Geoff Cohen, and David Sherman, in partnership with the Learning Research and Development Center. Claude, Geoff, and David spoke about the psychology of belonging and inclusivity, and how we can better leverage their research in our own work. You can read about it here.

On September 20, 2019, we participated in PARK(ing) Day on the Pittsburgh campus. We brought a photo booth to the event and enjoyed the opportunity to meet with students and invite them to sign up for Pitt Commons.

On February 24, 2020, the Office of the Provost partnered with the Office of the Senior Vice Chancellor for Research to host the inaugural Internal Funding Showcase: Fueling our Future. This showcase provided a platform to recognize the grantees of the recently restructured Pitt Momentum Funds and the work of other seed funding program recipients, including the awardees of the Forge Your Own Path and Pitt Seed Grants. The full program book is available to download and lists all grant awardees. Read the event coverage in @Pitt and University Times.

On March 3, 2020, in partnership with the Office of the Senior Vice Chancellor for Engagement, the Office of the Provost co-hosted the second annual Community Engaged Scholarship Forum. The event, which was attended by 250 people, featured breakout sessions, poster presentations, panel discussions, and networking planned around the theme of building momentum through community partnerships. Read the event coverage in @PittPittwire, and University Times.

On March 5, 2020, the third annual Mentoring and Advising Summit, co-hosted by Pitt and Carnegie Mellon University, brought out 381 mentors, advisors, and coaches for a day of conversation, networking, and planning. The summit keynote was delivered by dr. becky martinez and can be viewed and shared here, where you will also find the agenda for the day and learn about the sessions and presenters. Read about the summit takeaways and more in @Pitt and Pittwire.

Networked Improvement Community  

The Advising and Student Success Networked Improvement Community (NIC) is composed of nine teams of volunteers working to strengthen advising practices within and across undergraduate units at the University. With our Partners for Networked Improvement, a team of applied researchers based at Pitt's Learning Research and Development Center, 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 a 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. The following schools and units have been involved in this work: The Office of the Provost, College of Business Administration, Swanson School of Engineering, School of Nursing, School of Computing and Information, University of Pittsburgh at Bradford, University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg, University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, Career Center.

Provost’s Student Success Researcher/Practitioner Collaborative

In August 2019, the Office of the Provost established a researcher/practitioner advisory group to ensure that new student-success initiatives and programs are informed by the latest research and that Pitt researchers are aware of the University’s initiatives and programs and can study their effects. Creating a community in which our research is translated into practice—and our practices are studied and learned from—will lead to increases in our public profile, in research publications, and in grant funding. Three workgroups were formed to catalyze different projects: 

  • Pitt Success Pell Match Work Group—focusing on the evaluation of the Pitt Success Pell Match program.
  • Pitt Transition Study Work Group—focusing on the pre-matriculation psychological intervention (formerly known as the College Transition Collaborative) and in-class belonging interventions in introductory biology and physics recitations.  
  • Advising Networks for Improvement Work Group—focusing on informing and helping to guide the work of the Advising and Student Success Networked Improvement Community by providing guidance for research questions and informed change practices.

Catalog of Opportunities (Coming Fall 2020)

As part of the Forge Your Own Path initiative's goal to connect students with the tools and resources they need for lives of self-determined impact, we are leading a cross-departmental, collaborative process for the University-wide rollout of a "catalog of opportunities." Pitt recognizes the important role of learning outside of the classroom for students to build lifelong competencies and ensure success at the institution and beyond. The "catalog of opportunities" tool will enable students to search and find all co-curricular activities offered across campus in a centralized platform and tailor their co-curricular engagement to meet their individual goals.

Interdisciplinary Transcript Distinctions 

In partnership with Vice Provost for Undergraduate Studies Joseph McCarthy, the Academic Innovation Team helped operationalize the launch of a new class of credential—a “distinction”—that incorporates a curated, synergistic combination of curricular, co-curricular, and experiential learning activities that support a student’s growth and development in particular interdisciplinary areas. Students participate in a sequence of courses that are then blended with high-impact activities outside the classroom. In this way, students learn to translate their knowledge into practical applications and are prepared to communicate these experiences to a broad audience. 

Initial distinction offerings include: 



Mentorship in Higher Education Roundtable
Notre Dame – June 18-19, 2019
“Recruitment and Retention” (with a focus on Pitt Commons)
Presented by April Belback, Director of Undergraduate Advising and Mentoring, and Brandi Cox, former Alumni Engagement Specialist, Career Center

Equity in the Academic Experience Summer Institute
Hosted by Georgetown University and University of Texas at Austin, in collaboration with the American Talent Initiative – June 23-26, 2019
April Belback, Director of Undergraduate Advising and Mentoring, led a team to advance Pitt's institutional goal around educational equity in the context of innovations in academic policies, curricula, and pedagogies. 

26th Annual National Conference of Students in Transition 
Orlando, FL – October 12, 2019 
“Impacts on Retention: Advising Students Foreclosed to Academic Major Decisions” 
Presented by April Belback, Director of Undergraduate Advising and Mentoring

Conference on Teaching and Learning in Higher Education 
LaRoche College, PA – November 15, 2019 
“Advising Networks for Improvement” 
Presented by Julia Spears, Associate Vice Provost for Academic Innovation, and April Belback, Director of Undergraduate Advising and Mentoring 

AACU Transforming STEM Higher Education 
Chicago, IL – November 7-9, 2019 
“Pitt’s BE STEM Center-Improvement Science to Broaden Equity in STEM” 
Presented by Julia Spears, Associate Vice Provost for Academic Innovation; Alison Legg, Senior Lecturer and Director of Outreach Programs, Department of Biological Sciences and co-director of the Broadening Equity in STEM Center; and Alaine Allen, director of Educational Outreach and Community Engagement, Swanson School of Engineering and co-director of the Broadening Equity in STEM Center

LearnLaunch: Across Boundaries
Boston, MA – January 30-31, 2020
"What Works to Create Successful Student Retention Initiatives?"
Panel participation by Julia Spears, Associate Vice Provost for Academic Innovation, with Jackson Boyar, co-founder & CEO of Mentor Collective. Moderated by Gates Bryant, partner at Tyton Partners

University of Pittsburgh Assessment and Teaching Conference
Pittsburgh, PA – January 24, 2020

"To Prove or Improve: How to Foster Growth Mindset, Build Trusts, and Help Students Thrive"
Presented by Kevin Binning, Assistant Professor, Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, and Omid Fotuhi, Research Associate, Learning Research & Development Center
Facilitated by Julia Spears, Associate Vice Provost for Academic Innovation

Mentoring and Advising Summit: Inclusive Excellence in Mentoring and Advising
Pittsburgh, PA – March 5, 2020
"Advising Networks for Improvement"
Presented by Julia Spears, Associate Vice Provost for Academic Innovation, and April Belback, Director of Undergraduate Advising and Mentoring
"Digital Mentorship: A Case Study"
Presented by Lisa Belczyk, Program Manager for Digital Engagement Initiatives; Maya Iliff, student intern; and Jacob Margasak, student intern

Honors and Awards 

  • April Belback and Olivia Hartle were awarded a Year of Creativity Grant this year to support a series of training sessions on the topic of mentoring and advising that leveraged the acting talent of Pitt's theatre students and used an improvisation-based methodology to improve conversational skills.

  • Julia Spears and April Belback were selected as the lead facilitators for the Advising Colloquium, held in parallel to the semiannual undergraduate vice provosts meeting for the Reinvention Collaborative, on October 14-16, 2019, at the University of California, Davis. From there, a national Academic Advising Community of Practice was formed, of which Julia and April are the overarching strategic leads. In collaboration with the Reinvention Collaborative, NACADA, and advising administrators and undergraduate vice provosts from our partner universities, Julia and April are leading workgroups on advising and student success topics relevant to research institutions.
  • On February 6-8, 2020, in New Orleans, Julia Spears and April Belback participated in the NACADA Administrators Institute Reinvention Collaborative AACoP Branch and led the team toward planning a vision for our work in the next year.

  • Campus Spirit Contest Winner: Best Door (Homecoming 2019)


In partnership with University Marketing and Communications, we underwent a brand refresh this year. This included developing new visuals and language about our work and upgrading our website to reflect our work and bring it in line with University branding. 

In addition, we launched a quarterly newsletter seriesForge Your Own Path News—and published the document you are reading now: our inaugural annual report.