His office in the McIver Building is tiny, jam-packed and atypical. Stuffed animals from Elmo to Winnie the Pooh fill a six-shelf bookcase in the company of yo-yos and stress balls.

Most academic advisors deal in core requirements. Bill Johnson deals in dreams.

“I’m literally on a mission to make things better for students,” says Johnson, student success coordinator for UNCG’s School of Health and Human Sciences (HHS). “If it’s not exciting to be here, why be here? I don’t think college should be a grind.”

Part of Johnson’s mission is to increase UNCG’s six-year graduation rate for students, currently about 53 percent and in-step with the national average.

“What about the other 47 percent?” he asks. “According to a report from Penn State, 80 percent of college students don’t know what they want to do. When I was 17 or 18, I had no clue. We have to do something differently in higher education. It’s just not working.”

UNCG hired Johnson, a certified dream coach who blogs as the “Dream Dean,” six years ago. Johnson, who also holds a master’s degree in physical education, created a one-credit course for first-year HHS students that he runs as a group coaching session. The class helps students define what they want to achieve in their careers and their lives. Johnson’s program stresses five main points — Story, Art, Vision, Action and Reflection (SAVAR).

Although Johnson says HHS Dean Celia Hooper and Associate Dean Kathy Williams have often had to defend his position in this age of shrinking budgets, the data comes down in his favor. In fact, as he puts it, the results are “off the charts.” Students who took his class showed an 80 percent retention rate and a five-year graduation rate of 61 percent, about 12 percent higher than the university average.

One of Johnson’s favorite questions for students considering various careers is simple and direct: “If you didn’t get paid to do this, would you do it anyway?” About a quarter of students who take the course wind up changing their majors.

In fall 2013, he led seven classes for about 100 students. By fall 2015, he’d like to train others on campus to teach the course, offering it to every new HHS student, including transfer and adult students.

Johnson’s dreams for SAVAR go beyond UNCG. He has assembled a team of academics in such diverse states as California, Wisconsin, New York and Oklahoma, who are helping him refine and test this method. He has spoken to administrators and advisors at universities across the country. And last September he was invited to share his ideas at the Gates Foundation’s Momentum Advising Challenge.

“Now we just have to spread the word,” Johnson says. “If we can get everyone engaged in life, if we can build that as a campus — not just for students but also for faculty and staff — we could be the model for our students. If you want UNCG to be unique, to me this is our way to be unique.”

Story by Michelle Hines, University Relations

Photography by Chris English, University Relations