Springtide Research Helps Washington University Campus Ministers Create Deeper Connection with Students

 In Case Study


Higher Ed


Troy Woytek
Director of Ministry,
Catholic Student Center (CSC)


Connect more deeply
with more students.


Adopted fundamental concepts from Springtide research to reframe mission and vision; embedded aspects of Relational Authority and the Belongingness Process to enhance relationship building with students.


Deeper relationships with students uncovered new ways to expand the CSC as a community of care.

Most campus ministers receive training on how to connect to students, yet Troy Woytek admits that establishing and maintaining those relationships can be challenging. 

As Director of Ministry for the Catholic Student Center at Washington University in St. Louis (WashU), Troy, along with his team, serves a population of more than 13,000 undergraduate and graduate students of all faiths. Troy describes WashU as an “Ivy League–caliber” school; whether they come from privileged backgrounds or are first-generation college students, most students excel at academics, extracurriculars, and more. Yet, the drive for success often pushes students toward a self-imposed perfectionism and sometimes impostor syndrome.  

“When you’re the cream of the crop (in high school) and then you come to a school where everyone is like that, it’s really easy for our students to feel like, ‘Do I belong here?’” Troy said. “There’s so many of them that feel that way, and they don’t necessarily realize they’re not the only ones.”

Troy and his team manage a roster of more than 1,100 students, offering a more traditional lineup of Catholic-based activities and social and service opportunities. Yet, they know the importance of relationship, so they looked to Springtide’s research to help them take a more intentional approach to connecting with students.

“A relationship is a long process, and you don’t necessarily see the effects or impacts immediately,” Troy says. “And we live in a culture that wants immediate results, right? Programs—if they go well—show immediate progress or immediate impact, just by people showing up. So it’s like, ‘Oh we’re offering this thing and 30 people showed up, so obviously we’re doing something right.’ And you can walk away with, ‘Oh, we taught them this thing or we had this great experience on retreat.’ But the one-on-one relationship is a two-, three-, four-year process where you’re just building off each (previous) conversation.” 

The synergy between the CSC’s present work and Springtide’s research pushed them to revamp both their mission and vision statement and use them as guideposts for future work:

“We’re holding [relationship building] as a standard for ourselves, and it’s continually making us think, ‘How can we care more for our students?’” Troy said. “How can we care more so that we can build more trust and get to know them better? And as we get to know them better, [how do we] learn more about their needs so we can care more? And we’re starting to see the impact [of that approach].”

Shifting Perspectives and Priorities

Troy and his team, which includes professional staff, ministry interns, and Catholic Student Union board members, recognized elements of both Relational Authority and the Belongingness Process in their current approaches and used them to weave more intentionality into their current work: 

  • They began to prioritize one-on-one meetings with students, setting them as a central focus for both ministry interns and staff. They started taking notes after every encounter with a student to capture important details.  
  • They charted weekly campus hours, how much they’re on campus with students, and with which students they’re interacting to easily spot those who might remain on the margins.  
  • They created student “faces” directories to review before going into meetings. Seeing students’ faces helps team members start associating faces with names and details. This helps them work their way through the Belongingness Process with students. 

Troy said it’s not enough to just know the students; anyone working with young people also needs to have a healthy level of self-awareness, taking the time to reflect on interactions with students and dissect their own behavior:

“How do I respond to things? How do I react to things? What triggers me? What’s going on inside me? What emotions are firing when certain things are said?” Troy said. “All of that [understanding] is so important when we’re doing this work with students. When we’re doing the work of [belonging] or doing the work of Relational Authority, [our own tendencies] influence how we are responding to that person that we’re encountering.” 

Changing the Offerings 

The combination of self-awareness and active work in relationship management pushed Troy and his team to go a step further and explore how they might make a deeper impact. When it comes to Relational Authority, Troy said the biggest impacts come with care—listening to students’ needs and issuing direct responses. They took three main actions based on what they heard from students: 

  • “We brought in a licensed therapist who is available for free to our students once a week for eight hours a day. We know in our student population that there is a mental health crisis on campus . . . and we kept coming across students who we would get to know who would share these things. We’d get to a point in the conversation where [it became] beyond our expertise. We’d need to refer them to a therapist on campus, but the trust wasn’t there. [It was important] to have someone who’s here, who’s confidential, that they can come and meet in a space that they’re comfortable with.” 
  • “We also have the student assistance fund for students who are in need financially—like when they need to go home for a funeral or an emergency but don’t have the money for a plane ticket. That’s something we’re starting to see a bit more with some students now. That’s showing care for those students.” 
  • “We always had food for programs, but we never had snacks available 24/7 to our students. Now they can just come in and grab snacks. And we have students coming in that we probably never would have seen otherwise, simply because they’ve heard about the snacks. But there’s a little bit of home care in that. . . . We can now notice [these students], get to know their name, and most importantly, get to know [them].”

Through the snack offering, Troy and his team not only made more connections but also were able to uncover a deeper need:

“We noticed some were grabbing those snacks a little more frequently than other students, some who were putting food in their backpacks,” Troy said. “So we said, ‘Let’s talk to some of these students and get to know their story and see what’s going on.’ And what came out of that was a real recognition of food insecurity among some of our students. So now we’re in the process of developing a plan to open a food pantry within our center for students who are experiencing food insecurity.” 

Troy said he’s convinced that using Springtide’s research to inform and guide how they approach their work has been a game changer for the center and the students it serves:

“There can be a roboticness [robotic quality] that I think campus ministers can get into [when it comes to interacting with students],” Troy said. “We have the privilege to ask about young people’s spiritual lives, but that’s not all we have to ask about. And if we only stay in that lane, then we never build actual true relationships. Jesus got into the fabric of people’s lives. [He] didn’t just talk to them about how to live out the Scriptures. But that work of getting to know people takes a while to earn that trust. And that’s what your research has shown—it takes a while to earn that trust, particularly with this generation. There’s not an automatic authority because I have a title and am a part of an institution. It takes work.” 

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