Building Bridges: How Ahmbra Austin is building a culture of positivity at UAA

by Catalina Myers  |   

A photo portrait of Ahmbra Austin
It’s been a whirlwind two years for Ahmbra Austin, UAA’s director of employee experience. Initially hired to revitalize the university’s onboarding process, she quickly learned that new employees weren’t the only ones craving new opportunities for growth and connection. (Photo by James Evans / University of Alaska Anchorage)

On a cold Friday night in April, the Varsity Sports Grill is packed with faculty and staff, filling the restaurant overlooking the gym of the Alaska Airlines Center. Servers drop off plates of sandwiches and fries as lively conversations take place at every table and corner booth. Ahmbra Austin, UAA’s director of employee experience, heads to the center of the room with a microphone to read off ticket numbers for employees to win various door prizes. 

Austin will have been with the university for precisely two years in August. Initially, she was hired as the university’s onboarding manager to build a more robust onboarding experience for new employees; however, within the first year, it wasn’t just new employees who needed an employee experience overhaul.

“It was obvious that there was a larger cultural issue,” Austin said. Austin arrived in Anchorage in the fall of 2021 from California, where she’d spent the last seven years in higher ed, developing staff programming at California State University San Marcos (CSUSM). She pulled from her extensive experience creating successful staff programming, rolled up her sleeves and got to work. “When I first arrived, I was inundated with this negative narrative about the university — and not just by employees — it really kind of shocked me and I thought, ‘What did I get myself into?’ I started the Synergy Groups early on when everyone was still pretty much online. The groups were interest-based and provided a way to start building bridges.”

Austin ran a similar program at CSUSM with great success, and although UAA’s Synergy Groups began small, word of mouth quickly spread, and since 2021 they’ve grown tremendously. The online groups cover topics from books and gardening to mountain biking, cooking and everything in between, with  frequent in-person group events throughout the year.

“We started virtually and then gradually shifted to  in-person,” she said. “At first we only had a handful of people attending events but at the last event, we had more than 50 signed up. It’s been really great to see this progression and see folks start to engage.”

In addition to the Synergy Groups and Employee Mixers, Staff Appreciation Day was added to the lineup at the end of this academic year. At the end of this year’s event, Austin announced that her department was committed to making this an annual event. In addition to an appreciation day, staff could expect the return of Development Day, a yearly event the university used to hold at the end of each academic year that included learning opportunities, workshops and a chance for connection. 

Austin said her department is also working on several new internal employee programs, including a buddy program for new employees, a formal mentorship program, and internal professional network groups. Additionally, she is working on a proposal aimed at campus-wide recognition for employees and streamlining the current longevity award program. Lastly, the program she is most excited to develop is employee community volunteerism.

“I've identified a few community partners that are really interested in working with us,” Austin said. “The idea is to provide opportunities for groups of employees to volunteer together and to develop community partnerships that speak to all different interests.”

While much of Austin’s focus during her second year at UAA has been on employee experience, her first was dedicated to onboarding. A lot has shifted in the university’s onboarding process since the pandemic. She hopes the new onboarding program for new hires will make them feel welcomed in their new workspace and offer historical knowledge of the university, a basic understanding of the colleges, departments and programs, and information on navigating the Anchorage campus from end to end.

Austin said a recent feature is her department automatically receiving a ticket notification of a new hire when they are entered into Banner, the university’s administrative processing tool for entering employee, faculty, student and alumni information. This new system will quickly allow Austin to walk that new employee through the various phases of theonboarding process, beginning with a self-guided orientation on Blackboard. The course, designed to be taken within the first two weeks of a new employee’s hire, covers critical information and safety. 

Following the Blackboard training, new hires sign up for monthly live training sessions where they hear from various presenters on UAA’s structure and spirit, enjoy a catered lunch and receive UAA swag.  New employees also hear from students and participate in a community building workshop with Jennifer Booz, UAA’s chief diversity officer. The new hire groups are encouraged by Austin to engage in opportunities to become involved at UAA through the Synergy Groups and other employee engagement activities and events. Lastly, new hires are invited to attend a group campus tour and an end-of-onboarding luncheon in the Student Union Den.

“It has taken us almost two years to get here but I feel like we're finally at a point where the program is stabilized,” Austin said. “We're always going to be making little tweaks and improvements based on feedback, butI feel pretty confident in saying that this will be close to the final iteration of what we're doing.”

Austin has accomplished an incredible amount of work in her first two years at UAA and said the university and community are starting to feel like home. She’s looking forward to future programming and seeing what comes next. Recently she went from a one-person show to hiring an additional employee, Heather Jensen, who joined the department in April. She’s excited to have another team member to brainstorm ideas and roll out new programming. It’s been a whirlwind experience, but Austin said she is starting to feel settled into her role, UAA, and Alaska.

“I cannot say enough how much I love working here,” she said. “I'm hoping to inspire that in others.”

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