How to improve student experience with Aspen Padilla

Academic Coordinator Aspen Padilla eliminated the word help from the tutoring center’s vocabulary. 

Why? Because asking for help is difficult. When you focus on working with a tutor, instead of asking one for assistance, you can level the playing field and eliminate the power dynamic.

This is just one of the ways Aspen is improving the student experience at Chemeketa Community College.

Tune in (or read below) for more of her insights on enhancing the student experience, her take on what being a great leader is all about, and how to approach student success in an ever-changing world.

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Listen to episode 27


In the episode “How to Improve Student Experience,” we discuss

  • How the pandemic changed academic tutoring at Chemeketa Community College
  • Why the definition of student success is always changing
  • The 5 pillars of being a good leader: listening, getting to know your team, matching people up with their strengths, giving opportunities to grow, and being honest
  • The difficulty of introducing a new tool in a large organization
  • Why it’s important to humanize yourself as a leader 
  • How to approach the college experience of nontraditional students 
  • Why leveling the playing field is vital to creating a welcoming student experience at the tutoring center
  • What’s next for Aspen: shifting the student experience to accommodate remote and in-person learning

Favorite quotes

“What do you want to work on? What do you want to practice? What opportunities can I look for, for you so that you can develop into the person that you want to be to get to where you want to go? What are your goals? I like to know who my people are and I like to match up people to their strengths.” - Aspen Padilla


[] provided a consistent student experience. So whenever a student needed to schedule a thing, it always looked the same to them, even though they were talking to a different department. I think that really removes barriers and uncertainty in the student experience and smooths it out.” - Aspen Padilla


“We try to pay attention to the fact that a lot of our students also have jobs. They have families. They are often non-traditional people with kids and parents and grandparents. So we've always focused on providing access to our services and to education, no matter what people's circumstances are.” - Aspen Padilla


It is very scary to walk into a space and ask for help. And one of the things that I did when I first started in this job was to try to eliminate the word help from our vocabulary because if I walk into a space and I say, ‘I have a question and I need your help.’ It automatically sets up that I am deficient in some way.” - Aspen Padilla

Meet today’s guest, Aspen Padilla

Aspen Padilla is a Learning Assistance professional determined to remove barriers to learning in all their forms.  

She started as a hardcore science student aiming for a research career and evolved to love informal learning environments like museums, science centers, and now a community college tutoring center.  

Aspen believes in providing a judgment-free learning experience for students of all skill levels and interests that engage minds and give students control of their learning.

Productivity resources to explore

“How to Improve Student Experience” full transcript

This transcript has been slightly edited for clarity and readability.

Ben (00:00):

From, this is Get More Done, the blueprint for managers to lead happy and productive teams. I'm Ben Dlugiewicz, and my mission is to help you stomp out inefficiencies so you can focus on work that will grow your business. And what is the key to leading a successful team? The power to listen.

Ben (00:16):

On this episode, I sat down with Aspen Padilla, the Academic Coordinator at Chemeketa Community College in Oregon. For over 13 years, Aspen has worked with students from all backgrounds. During our conversation, she talks about how her team breaks the stigma of asking for help, how the idea of student success changes over time, and how listening plays a vital role in her management style. All of that on Get More Done, starting now.

Ben (00:55):

Excellent. Welcome back to the Get More Done podcast where we talk about all things productivity and helping your team kick more booty. And on this episode, I'm sitting down with Aspen Padilla, the Academic Coordinator at Chemeketa Community College. Aspen, welcome to the podcast.

Aspen (01:12):

Hello, and thank you for having me.

Ben (01:14):

Yeah. I'm excited to dig into all things tutor-related and how that works with student success at Chemeketa, but before we do that, we start our conversations off with an icebreaker just to help you get a bit more comfortable and kind of break the nerves up a little bit. So for you, this one, if you were a breakfast food, what would you be and why?

Aspen (01:37):

My favorite answer to this question is an omelet because they're kind of a mess. It takes some work to do it, and they sort of look like a hot mess, but there's some good stuff in there. And so, I like to think that's me, a bit of a hot mess, but there's some good stuff in here.

Ben (01:54):

There's some good stuff in there. Absolutely. That's really great. Speaking of the hot mess that I imagine managing a whole tutoring group is, walk me through a typical day for you at Chemeketa.

Aspen (02:07):

So a typical day has definitely evolved in the last couple of years, right? We have a flock of tutors or a herd of tutors that are mostly students, and we recruit our high-achieving students to be tutors because they're the best role models for other students. We used to be an in-person service and students would come and go from our tutoring center all day long, six days a week, and stay as long as they wanted. And then a certain current event happened and we had to adjust everything and now, where we used to not have any appointments or structured time with tutors, now that's all we are. We are all appointments, seven days a week.

Aspen (03:01):

It's now just me and one other staff person. We used to be six. Now we're two. So we are just making sure that those tutors are happy and productive and they have everything they need to do awesome and work with students to help them be successful. We are answering questions, we're monitoring the appointments, we're correcting email addresses, and making sure everybody has the Zoom links and just kind of doing... We're the duck feet under the water, and we're paddling like crazy, while the tutors are the duck on top and they're just smooth sailing. And that's what the students see, so it's kind of what we're doing.

Ben (03:44):

Yeah, absolutely. That's a perfect metaphor, I think, of controlling the chaos and trying to wrangle all of that. So speaking of student success and students throughout your tenure there with Chemeketa over a decade, 13 years nearly, how have you seen student success evolve over that time?

Aspen (04:05):

It's really interesting. When I first came here, it was in 2008 and it was in the middle of an economic downturn and a recession. And community colleges are an interesting place because our enrollment ebbs and flows with the economy, but kind of in the opposite direction. So when there's high unemployment, we see high enrollment because a lot of people are trying to get a better job or trying to get a job and they need some more training. They need some more education. In 2008, 9, 10, there were lots of people who were out of work and so we saw a lot of older students who had been in the workforce for a long time. A lot of them were very intimidated by coming back to school and thinking that they were going to be the oldest one in their class and surrounded by a bunch of 18-year-olds who had just come from high school and they were going to look silly.

Aspen (05:04):

There was a lot of fear and anxiety there. And over time, as the economy turned around and got better, our enrollment started to change. We've seen the student population kind of switch back to a little bit more traditional-age students these days, a lot lower enrollment, which is a little bit scary. And over time, just to answer the actual question, the definition of success kind of changes and is very different for individual students. Back when I first started, success might have meant coming back and taking one or two classes so they can brush up on some accounting skills or some writing skills so they could get a promotion or a better job. And now, the students who are doing their first two years of college, and then they're going to transfer to a four-year school. So we're ebbing back a little bit more toward the traditional-age students and that's what their success looks like.

Aspen (06:14):

Community colleges are an interesting place because we have to define student success depending on who our students are. And we have to constantly make that case to the public, and to our community, and to the state legislature because they like to boil success down to a graduation rate. One number. And our community and our student population are much more colorful and much more diverse than a single number. Any number that we give has an asterisk with it, and that footnote is three paragraphs long.

Ben (06:48):

Yeah, that makes total sense that it is based on the student that you're working with or the cohorts that you're talking about, because they may have different needs and different aspirations and different goals, so that makes total sense. Looking back, is there anything that you would have done differently or sooner with your tenure there?

Aspen (07:07):

Let's see. I don't know that there is. I've never really been a... This sounds terrible, but it's just the way that I am. When people ask me where do you want to be in five years, I never have a solid answer. It's always, "I don't know." I like to stick to one thing and then when opportunities present themselves that I'm interested in, then I pursue them. And that is how I have woven my way through Chemeketa. This is actually my fourth job at the college in those 13 years that I've been here. So, I don't know that I would've done anything differently because I pursued opportunities when they were presented, when things were interesting, and that's how I wander my way through the world these days, or my whole life.

Ben (08:02):

That's a great way to live, just being in the now and taking it one next step at a time, and not worrying too much about it. And also, not having the regrets of saying, "Oh, I wish I would've changed something," or anything like that. I guess, kind of a pivot onto that, what type of things are you able to do today that maybe you weren't able to do five or 10 years ago?

Aspen (08:22):

Well, I've had three different supervisory positions, so compared to straight-up 10 years ago, I enjoy having a leadership role and being able to guide a department and a group of people. And although sometimes it's terrifying, I do like that I'm the person that people look to for answers. But I also like to turn that around and let my people know that I listen to them, I stand on their shoulders. So just some of that leadership stuff, I really like, and I'm glad has happened over time.

Ben (09:03):

Yeah. And that's great. Now, from a leadership perspective, what do you think makes a good leader?

Aspen (09:12):

I like to think that listening is a huge part of it. I'm also a lead-from-the-middle kind of person. One of the first things that I've done when I've gotten a new staff person or when I've come into a different department and taken over leadership of a team is, I have individual meetings with each person. And I took each person out to lunch. It wasn't a giant group of people, so it was manageable. But I went to lunch with each person and we left the campus and went somewhere else that was informal, so we weren't in my office where there's an obvious power dynamic. We just took it away to a different location and we just had conversations. And I had a few questions that I wanted to get answers to, but also I just wanted to hear from them and answer their questions about me.

Aspen Padilla quote 1

Aspen (10:03):

But I like to find out like, "Who are you? What makes you tick? What makes you get out of bed in the morning? What makes you like your job? What do you want to develop?” I kind of asked the question that I hate being asked, which is, what do you want to do in the future? And what can I do to help you get there? What do you want to work on? What do you want to practice? What opportunities can I look for, for you so that you can develop into the person that you want to be to get to where you want to go, what are your goals? I like to know who my people are and I like to match up people to their strengths.

Aspen (10:40):

People who are really good at public speaking usually get an invitation to a podcast. I had a staff person who actually just got promoted and moved to a different college, closer to home. I would've said, "Would you rather do this podcast instead of me?" Because he was a much better, more comfortable, natural speaker. This is quite a stretch for me, but I'm doing it. And it's like eating broccoli. It's good for me, but it's hard.

Aspen (11:08):

So, anyway, yeah, I like to match people to their strengths, but also give them opportunities to grow. Put them in a situation where they have to stretch a little bit, kind of like I'm doing now. And so another thing that I think makes a good leader is honesty. Like when I was telling people that I was doing this, this morning, I told them I was very nervous. And I think it's okay to admit that you're nervous about a thing because it makes you human. And so, yeah, I like to humanize that role.

Ben (11:42):

Yeah. And I think more people need to embrace that uncomfortableness because that's where that growth happens. Right. And it's really cool that you are able to align your direct reports to their strengths. So I have a question for you, how do you attain their strengths? Is it something that they're bringing to you or you are assessing over time? Or how do you determine where their strengths lie?

Aspen (12:04):

Both. Our own visions of ourselves are often, we're looking at ourselves through our own lens. And so I'm sitting here telling you all the stuff that I think about myself, but if somebody else answered the same question about me, they'd probably answer very differently. So I do ask people and I like to hear what people think about themselves. And I like to hear about what they want to do, what they enjoy doing. But also I like to watch and observe and listen. Part of the work of tutoring is listening and asking questions. And so yeah, I do that intentionally and unintentionally as a manager, as a leader, just as a person in the world, it's a set of skills that just bleeds over to everything. So yeah. So both.

Ben (12:55):

That's it because you have two ears, right? So you can listen twice as much as you talk hopefully. So let's talk a little bit about software because I know that can be a big, big help to teams to help them be more efficient and you all are big users of So how has that scheduling automation helped your team get more done?

Aspen (13:17):

It has been key to our being able to provide service to students for the last two years, actually two years today. As I mentioned before, we had been an in-person service with just drop-in. Students would come in, they could work in our space, they could work with a tutor or not, and there were no appointments or structure to the time. And now, when all of our tutoring went remote, we had to be able to structure that time. And we did actually try some drop-in models with Zoom tutoring and did not get great results. Didn't see a lot of interest from students there. So I think it was just too weird. It's weird enough to walk into a space and ask for assistance and to go into a completely unknown Zoom space that you can't even look in the window first. I think it was too much for people. So we did the appointments.

Aspen (14:17):

And without another staff person available to manage those, we could not have done that, even if we had three people taking appointments and scheduling tutors. So having something that automated that was brilliant and we set it up, it took us a minute to learn all the little ins and outs, but my great staff that I had at the time figured it out. I think we've used almost all of the little nooks and crannies, our different subjects and our different groups of tutors, and our different ways that students are going to find those booking pages just required a lot of customization. And so we used a lot of it. So it was brilliant. We couldn't have done what we've done over the last two years without it.

Ben (15:07):

Yeah. That's awesome to hear. And yeah, that customization really comes in handy because it can mold it to be what you need. And I'm really glad that the students embraced it as well. Because that's part of teaching folks a new way to get in touch with you instead of just the casual drop-ins that you had before. So, apart from, what other tools or processes do you have set up that help your team save time?

Aspen (15:31):

See I know we talk about Zoom fatigue. I've actually really appreciated having Zoom because, well maybe this isn't great, but I can book more meetings in a day because I don't have to run around campus and I don't have to have the transition time between meetings. I'm going to talk about the stuff that I wish we had. Sometimes innovating is a challenge when you are one department within a large college and our college spans three counties in Oregon. So it's a pretty big space. And so when you change something, sometimes you have to get more than one workgroup informed or it has to work for lots of different people. So, we have to be careful about when we make changes. Some of the things that I wish that we had both in our department and kind of college-wide are, that we spend a lot of time doing mundane, kind of housekeeping things like tracking the hours that our tutors work and reporting those to HR.

Aspen (16:36):

And I wish we had a more efficient way of doing that. Across my little staff group, that would save us probably 10 hours a month just tracking down, counting up hours, and then people reporting them, and then we have to verify them. And it's very inefficient until two years ago we were using paper timesheets, which, I mean, you may as well tell people we were carving hieroglyphics into a wall. And so the college was forced to innovate and come up with electronic timesheets. They're fine, but we still have to do all this other tracking stuff that I wish there was a more efficient way to deal with.

Ben (17:17):

And I mean, in that vein too, we can talk a little bit about that vendor selection process or how you would get new software at your school and what that process looks like.

Aspen (17:28):

Yeah. So to make big changes, there's a lot of red tape. There are a lot of layers because we're such a big college with big tendrils. And we also store a lot of confidential student information. And so our IT department has a very strict vetting process where we have to make sure that anything that touches that student information meets certain security criteria and that whatever vendor is running that software also maintains certain security standards. So they're protecting our student data. And so it's a huge process that can take a couple of years to get something pushed through. So something like that doesn't actually touch the student data, that the students put in their information and they have control over. That was much easier to get established. And we actually, when we switched to operating remotely, we were one of the first, maybe the second department in the college to use

Aspen Padilla quote 2

Aspen (18:33):

And when people saw how we were using it and how well it was working, probably a half a dozen or so other areas across the college adopted it, which we really appreciated because one, they came to us to find out about it and we got to show them how to use it and adapt it to their needs and stuff. But also, it provided a consistent student experience. So whenever a student needed to schedule a thing, it always looked the same to them, even though they were talking to a different department. I think that really removes barriers and uncertainty in the student experience and smooths it out. And so appreciated that. So the approval, do you want me to talk more about the approval process? I don't know. It's big. It involves lots of people. It takes a lot of time and anything that costs any money usually makes it even harder.

Ben (19:33):

And decisions by committee, I imagine. And a lot of people being involved and needing security reviews, all that because student data is the most important piece that you don't want falling into the wrong hands or being compromised in any way. So that makes total sense. But it's frustrating because you're on the business end of that.

Aspen (19:51):


Ben (19:51):

And needing to do something and not having the software to do it. So apart from the timesheets or the time calculations that you're working on now, what else is taking up a lot of your time?

Aspen (20:05):

As we're trying to migrate back to being an in-person service and the college is migrating back to being an in-person educational institution, we're trying to figure out what that looks like now. We have a couple of years of students who are used to doing everything by computer and doing things remotely. And some of them actually prefer that. And there are a lot of students that it works better for. We try to pay attention to the fact that a lot of our students also have jobs. They have families. They are often non-traditional people with kids and parents and grandparents and whatever. So we've always focused on providing access to our services and to education, no matter what people's circumstances are. So, we're trying to keep some of the innovations that we've come up with in the last couple of years that we didn't realize were useful. We didn't realize they were things that people have really latched onto. So we want to keep those things.

Aspen Padilla Quote 3

Aspen (21:16):

So some of our time is now being spent listening to students and asking them questions. Every other year, we send a survey to all of our students. And one of the questions that we ask is, "Did you use our service or not? And if you didn't, then why not?" So we're doing a lot of listening right now and trying to figure out what of those remote services we need to keep and which ones we can keep. We also did a lot of listening right before we all went remote actually. And so we have feedback from students about our physical space. That is, although it's two years old, it's always pretty consistent over time. So trying to incorporate that and mix it with the remote so that we can actually expand our service while our staff numbers shrink.

Ben (22:14):

Do more with less. Right. That's exactly the whole thing about this podcast. And I mean, that feedback is critical, because it's like, you don't want to be working in a silo and working heads down without work that's actually impacting your end-user, in this case, your students. Right?

Aspen (22:29):


Ben (22:29):

So that makes total sense. So what tips would you share with other folks in that academic coordinating space and managing tutors and that type of thing, what has been working really well for you and your team?

Aspen (22:43):

We have tried to really maintain a connection. When we were in person and we would all be in the same place, we were a very social group, both at work and outside of work. We used to have game nights that would rotate between different people's houses, and those were super fun. And so we've been trying to maintain that connection over time. I think it's really important as my staff group shrinks, it's been harder and harder to do, but it doesn't make it any less important. It should be one of the things that I'm spending more time on, but I'm just trying to keep the ship afloat a lot of days. So keep that connection. It's important to have, I was listening to something this morning and the lady said work isn't just about work or work isn't just about productivity.

Aspen (23:36):

It's about the people and the connections. And even during remote times, we had remote game nights where we would get together on a Friday or a Saturday evening, and whoever was available, we liked to play Among Us, which is a little goofy online game. And somehow I got murdered a lot. So I don't know what that's about. One particular person was most often the imposter and for some reason, they would always come after me. So I got murdered a lot and I didn't take it personally. It was just fun. But we had a great time and people seemed to be happy and cheerful and chipper.

Aspen (24:20):

And also it was talking earlier about leadership qualities and the humanizing, one of my goals in participating in that was not just to blow off my own steam, but also to just interact with people in an informal way to show them that I'm a human with a sense of humor and a personality and it makes it easier when they have a problem or a question. It makes it easier for them to come to me for some answers. So yeah. So humanize it. That's my number one tip, I guess.

Ben (24:56):

Yeah. That makes total sense of getting to the people and making sure that you're there for them and supportive of them. And I love how you approached it from the standpoint of leveling that balance of power, right? Because ultimately you want to be there and you want them to have trust in you. And when you have things out of scale or out of equilibrium that makes it difficult. So kind of bringing it down to their level. I love that. So one question I had for you when we talk about tutoring and just the stigma of asking for help, how do you empower your students to reach out and use your services?

Aspen (25:32):

And this is a huge part of our philosophy and our work and how we communicate. It is very scary to walk into a space and ask for help. And one of the things that I did when I first started in this job was to try to eliminate the word help from our vocabulary because if I walk into a space and I say, "I have a question and I need your help." It automatically sets up that I am deficient in some way. And that I am coming to a person who has something that I don't have that I need, and that's scary. And I get that and there are a lot of social and cultural factors involved in asking for assistance. So when I talk about tutoring, I hardly ever talk about, come and get help from a tutor. I try to talk about it in terms of come and work with a tutor or you can ask a tutor a question. I think we all get that you're coming in with a question and that's fine, but I tried to eliminate the word help from our printed material and our website.

Copy of Podcast Quotes-1

Aspen (26:46):

And when I see that someone has written something about my department that has the word help in it, I will ask them to edit it. But I really think it levels that playing field and eliminates the power dynamic. We try to make our physical space welcoming. I'm actually looking at it out my office window right now. It's kind of a big open room and we're fortunate enough to have a great location on our main campus. We're in the building right upstairs from the food and the coffee, right? So lots of people have to walk by our space. And when we're busy, that's really great because people see the label over the door is the Tutoring and Study Skills Center. And they see that there are lots of people in here and it makes it okay to come in and ask what's going on or just to come in because other people are clearly using it. It's okay that I do too. So, we try to create that physically welcoming space.

Aspen (27:51):

We also are very into our training program. We're certified by an international tutor certification program through the College Reading and Learning Association and in lesson one, the very first thing in the very first training class that we make all of our tutors do is how to create a welcoming environment and how to be aware of body language and listening and physical spacing. And we have our tutors sit next to the student that they're working with rather than facing them because it makes it feel more collaborative.

Aspen (28:35):

And we just run through all of this stuff, ask anybody who works here, what is tutoring about? And the first thing they should say is creating a welcoming environment and just all of those things that we do to make coming in and talking to us and working with us less scary is what we're about. When we went remote, we didn't have the opportunity. People couldn't see us and they couldn't see that our service was here. And we didn't have that space that people would feel comfortable walking into. So we made a video and we put that out there and it was the staff talking about the space. I think we had, we may or may not have had some students in there talking also, but just to put a human face on it, these are the people that you're going to see when you come in.

Aspen (29:29):

We had a couple of different videos. One of them had here's what happens when you book your tutoring session, this is how it's going to look. You're going to get these emails. You're going to click on this link. This window is going to pop up. And there was a screenshot or a little clip of a Zoom tutoring session. So people would know exactly what they were going to see and experience just to take the fear away. It got no less scary to ask for help when you are remote and you're in your living room and you feel extra isolated. And I did use the word help just then because I'm not perfect at it. Sometimes it's just a bad habit that I fall back into.

Ben (30:08):

Sure. But I love that. You are trying to change that narrative and change the culture around it, to make it more empowering, like you mentioned. So it's not that you are deficient in any way but that you are actually courageous for taking the steps to seek advice and ask those questions. And making it that welcoming space is really rad and awesome that you'll have a good location where after people get a full belly, they can go get a full mind upstairs. That's really cool.

Aspen (30:36):

We encourage people to, if they've been here for a while or we also train our tutors to listen for cues that are like, somebody's been here a while they might be hungry or tired and it's okay to tell a student, encourage them to take a break and say "It's a good habit to be in. You've been here for four hours. That's a long time. It's natural for our brains to get tired after that long. Why don't you think about, just getting up, taking a walk, taking a break, getting some water, going downstairs, getting a snack. And I will be here when you come back. Don't even worry about it. Do what you got to do for you. And one of us will be here when you get back." Just in case they were worried that they had to do it all right now. No, they don't.

Ben (31:24):

They don't, exactly. Again, back to that, just breaking the stigma and just making it a relaxed space. Right?

Aspen (31:29):


Ben (31:30):

So, what's next for you and your team?

Aspen (31:32):

Next is trying to figure out how to be an in-person service again, while remaining a partly remote service and figuring out how to do that and figuring out kind of who our students are now. They are very different than they were a couple of years ago. Just like we saw the change in students from the non-traditional older people returning from the workforce now, and then back to the sort of fresh out of high school group. This fresh out of high school group is very different from the ones that we saw a couple of years ago. So we have to figure out who they are and what they want, looking at a lot of numbers and seeing what people are interested in and then trying to match their needs, doing a lot of listening, even though they don't know they're talking sometimes, we're still listening.

Ben (32:28):

Yeah, that's really great. So where can folks go to learn more about Chemeketa?

Aspen (32:33):

Probably our public website: Also, there are a variety of accounts on various social media, so Chemeketa is a pretty unique word. So put that into any of the searches and you'll probably find us. And then also if you happen to find yourself in Oregon, we are scattered across three counties. So come and visit us in person. Do it super old school.

Ben (32:59):

Yeah, absolutely. Awesome. Well, Aspen, it's been great to talk with you and to learn more about everything that your team is working on and helping your students succeed there at Chemeketa. And thanks for taking the time to be on Get More Done.

Aspen (33:13):

Yeah. Thank you for having me. This was super fun.

Ben (33:15):

Yeah. Have a good rest of your day.

Aspen (33:17):

Thanks, you too.

Ben (33:18):


Ben (33:20):

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