When Samantha Eisdorfer trekked across campus that momentous day in 2016, winter had long since fled. The music therapy student barely noticed these springy notes, however.
Dissonant chords clashed inside her.
She’d been second-guessing her major. Three years in, how could she switch tracks now?
Eisdorfer continued into Stacey Zimmerman’s office and experienced a conversion moment.
“I need to do this other thing my heart is calling me to do,” she told Zimmerman, Elizabethtown College’s associate director of strengths coaching and ethical leadership. The top tool in Zimmerman’s arsenal is the Clifton StrengthsFinder, a web-based talent assessment that identifies individuals’ top five talents.
Strengths-based education first sprouted in pockets of campuses 15 years ago as the grassroots movement grew nationally; E-town started offering the Clifton questionnaire to all first-year students in 2016.
Nine out of 10 elect to take it, said Zimmerman who oversees a squad of interns who mentor underclassmen and introduce the Strengths protocol to them.
“Strengths is far more embedded in our College culture today,” said Zimmerman.
“The goal is to build talents into strengths” and help students understand themselves and what makes them happy and fulfilled, she said.
One early adopter, Engineering and Physics Professor Kurt DeGoede, uses StrengthsFinder to mix and match students who are working on projects.
“Engineers work in teams,” DeGoede said.
StrengthsFinder makes it easy to balance group members along the four Clifton talent-theme domains—executing, influencing, relationship building and strategic thinking but Clifton isn’t just for youths beginning to parse life’s journey. In retreats, workshops and other more informal ways, E-town faculty and staff members leverage the program to refine teaching skills and enrich relationships.
Director of Major Gifts Marty Thomas-Brumme features StrengthsFinder in a regular team-building exercise for the College’s Institutional Advancement staff.
“It’s helped us recognize the completeness of who we are” and transcend the habit of seeing human differences as obstacles, Thomas-Brumme said. “It’s one of those subtle things.”
Just ask Eisdorfer, who as a Roxbury, New Jersey, teen followed her head more than her gut when brainstorming her future.
“I made this gigantic spreadsheet, probably the size of a tapestry,” she recalled. She researched 36 majors and hit upon music therapy. She loved choir, she reasoned, and her high school choir directors deemed the major a perfect match.
Fast forward two years, following a couple of sophomore retreats, where she met Zimmerman—and Clifton. “I was so inspired by the Strengths thing I called Stacey and asked her if she would be my mentor,” Eisdorfer recalled.
“That was my game changer,” she added, and left Zimmerman’s office that spring day two years ago to switch her major to music—with a psychology minor.
Her anxiety vanished. She jumped in with both feet, attending a CliftonStrengths summit in Omaha, Nebraska, the following summer, and became E-town’s original StrengthsFinder peer educator.
A psychology internship in fall 2016 was a springboard to her new passion as a case manager in a Franklin County reentry facility, helping ex-prisoners readjust to society. Today, “the biggest thing for me,” she said, is positivity, a familiar Clifton strength. “I ooze the positivity thing.”
“It’s such a good feeling to know,
‘yeah, this is how I process. This is who I am and I need to embrace that’.”
The StrengthsFinder movement itself, exudes optimism.
Grounded in positive psychology, it’s the brainchild of iconoclastic Nebraska psychologist Don Clifton. He and his cohorts blazed new trails two generations ago, splitting from the Freuds and the Jungs of the field to study what’s right with people instead of what’s wrong.
Selection Research Inc., a marketing consulting and personnel testing business, that Clifton launched in 1969, acquired the renowned Gallup public opinion research company in 1988.
Gallup released Clifton StrengthsFinder in 2001. Since then, millions of students and adults have accessed a 30- to 40-minute online questionnaire, which can be used to identify 34 innate talents. Participants typically focus on the top five. Clifton ranks each person’s characteristics, and says the odds you’ll share identical “talent theme” rankings with another person are one in 33 million.
That means the evaluations are remarkably personal, said Charla Lorenzen, associate professor of Spanish, who became a fan after taking her first StrengthsFinder workshop about five years ago.
It’s a little disconcerting, admitted Lorenzen, who said her free spirit guided her to E-town. “How can they possibly know me this well?”
Like Zimmerman and Eisdorfer, Lorenzen said, “I’m pretty much a positive person.”
Back to those happiness muscles. Sculpting them is the Clifton mission. Positive psychologists say it works because people experience optimal meaning, engagement and fulfillment—the so-called “good life —when they’re in sync with their own values and talents.
But first you have to recognize and accept those things, said Johanna Gardiner, the administrative assistant in the Department of Education.
Battling cancer several years ago, and weathering an April 2018 fire that drove her from her home, failed to suppress her jovial nature.
“I’m constantly asking questions” and making lists, too, added Gardiner. She said she felt validated a few years ago when a StrengthsFinder survey highlighted her strong positivity and learner characteristics.
“It was such a relief to learn why I asked so many questions,” she said. “It’s such a good feeling to know, ‘yeah, this is how I process. This is who I am and I need to embrace that’.”
Gardiner now co-leads campus workshops with Zimmerman — they use the Gallup Press book, “Teach With Your Strengths: How Great Teachers Inspire Their Students” — and she loves sharing the Clifton manifesto with office interns, one of whom asked her to be a mentor in 2015. Gardiner urged the socially anxious undergraduate to try to make eye contact with a few people every day.
“It was really cool” to see this person, who had walked around with downcast eyes, turn into a confident young woman greeting people and holding doors open for them, Gardiner said.
Coaching and learning from students is hugely rewarding, emotionally, added Gardiner, who said StrengthsFinder motivated her to step outside herself and become more multi-dimensional in her interactions.
Over the years she was able to break down that supervisor/employee wall and let the student workers see who she is.
Love yourself before you try to love others. That’s venerable, sage advice, but it’s powerfully amplified by StrengthsFinder, said Cheri Way, office manager for Athletics.
“Optimism equals positive energy” absorbed by the people around you, she said. Their worth reinforced, they “suddenly feel empowered to work more creatively.”
Since last fall, Way and other volunteers have raised awareness about StrengthsFinder via the “E-town Traveling Jay.”
Their stuffed blue-and-white mascot, purchased from the College Store, migrates around campus — and Instagram — clutching a sign that reads “Ask Me About My Strengths.”
“I’m a cheerleader” for the movement, said Way, who created the sign by Velcroing a laminated card to a stick.
“Optimism equals positive energy.”
Across campus in Alpha Hall, Thomas-Brumme wages his own StrengthsFinder campaign.
He said the test helped him synthesize an eclectic career that included running a homeless shelter in Philadelphia. Now, he and his coworkers polish their Strengths during an annual office workshop.
“They laugh,” Thomas-Brumme said. ‘We’re not doing Strengths again this year, are we?’ I’m like… We are. So get used to it.”
He’s joking. Kind of.
Maybe it’s the “arranger” in him. He points to the top of his filing cabinet, where a framed sign lists his other strengths: belief, responsibility, adaptability, includer.
There are other personality tests out there, such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, also in use at E-town, but Thomas-Brumme says he thinks StrengthsFinder most ably reflects the college’s “educate for service” motto. “That attracts a certain type of person” more passion-driven and open to introspection.
Of course, introspection takes many forms.
“There are people who don’t buy into [Strengths],” Cheri Way noted — a student once told her ‘I don’t think I want to be defined by five words’ — and it is subjective, said DeGoede, who presented a paper on Strengths this past summer at the American Society for Engineering Education conference in Salt Lake City, Utah.
“We work with the students both in understanding what [the test] says and what it doesn’t.”
It won’t tell you what to do, but will help you discover how to best do what you do. It provides a tangible framework for students in voicing their talents and for faculty writing letters of reference.
“That really resonates for the students,” DeGoede said.
Kirstin Blass, who graduated in 2017 with a degree in early childhood education and in 2018 with a master’s degree in special education, said she couldn’t immediately reconcile her StrengthsFinder profile with her personality. The longer she thought about it, though, the more she realized ‘oh yeah, it definitely applies to me,’ she added.
Blass first took the test about five years ago as a new Blue Jay softball player. Her coach, Kathy Staib, was trying to encourage team veterans to click with a large group of incoming first-year students.
In concert with Zimmerman, they designed a poster to showcase everyone’s strengths and viewpoints. It worked.
Blass, who had been conflicted about missing last-minute team outings—such as going for pizza—was able to explain that she wanted to bond with the other athletes but felt duty-bound to honor previous commitments.
Afterward, she said, her teammates “definitely made an effort to try to kind of plan things in advance,” so everyone could take part.
That’s just the kind of outcome beloved by E-town’s peer mentors.
“There’s 32 of us in all,” said junior occupational therapy student Melanie Schuller.
Each is responsible for introducing 16 incoming students to the College.
One of the mentors’ key tasks is “singing the praises of Strengths,” said Regan Barlow, another mentor and a senior majoring in social work. But it’s also fun to get to know each other and welcome the sometimes disoriented, homesick newbies to campus life.
StrengthsFinder results become conversation starters, representing valuable common ground, said peer mentor and junior business administration student Dylan Warner.
You “name it, claim it, aim it,” summed up Eisdorfer, the choir singer-turned-case manager.
“When I had that moment in (Stacey’s) office,” she said, “I sort of committed myself to being a Stacey for somebody else.” A catalyst. A trail guide to self-actualization.
“I try to be that for my reentrants. I always have my door open. I couldn’t be happier with where I ended up.”
“He said he could see the pupils in my eyes,” joked Lorenzen, an associate professor of Spanish.
The CliftonStrengths assessment of personal “talent themes” is more scientific (if less witty).
According to Clifton, every human has 34 traits (pictured above), which we possess in different combinations and intensities.
The accurate, textured personal portraits that Clifton paints are what Lorenzen loves about the test. Like many, her profile is all over the map.
“‘Input’ is my strongest strength,” she said. “I think that’s interesting” because it implies shyness and bookishness. But another of her top-five, “positivity,” suggests bubbly extroversion.
She is all of that.
She relishes low-key situations, but, simultaneously, “when I’m teaching I am my best self.”
Clifton captures this kind of counterpoint brilliantly, said Lorenzen, who became fascinated by the test about five years ago and has taken several StrengthsFinder workshops. “Every time, I learn something more nuanced about it.”
And about herself.
She’s also a Clifton ‘learner’ with the thirst for knowledge and self-improvement.
As a kid, she learned to speak with the parents of Mexican and Vietnamese friends in their own language. She started teaching fitness classes at 17.
Today, she said, she loves translating, for her students, what she learns in professional development programs.