UAR solicits feedback for pre-major advising

Sept. 28, 2011, 2:30 a.m.

Undergraduate Advising and Research (UAR) reinstated mandatory quarterly check-ins with pre-major advisors (PMAs) beginning with the Class of 2014. With a year under the program’s belt, UAR is facilitating feedback to try to further improve the pre-major advising experience at Stanford.

While the check-in program is not completely new, it is a revision to a past policy. Under the revision, students who have not declared a major are now required to meet with PMAs before they can enroll in courses for the following quarter. Due to adjustments to the University’s enrollment program, UAR is now able to ensure that undeclared students meet with their advisors by placing a hold on their Axess accounts until they attend the meetings.

According to the 2010-11 UAR Annual Report, the hold on enrollment was originally instated “to reinforce [UAR’s] commitment that every undeclared undergraduate should have the benefit of regular advice and guidance from an advisor.”

Because incoming freshmen and sophomores are now required to meet with advisors quarterly, UAR has prioritized matching students to PMAs with whom they share a common interest.

“The Approaching Stanford questionnaire translates into groups of possible majors, and the Academic Director matches these descriptions with a PMA,” said Julie Lythcott-Haims, dean of freshmen and undergraduate advising.

Kirsti Copeland, director of Residentially-Based Advising, oversees the process as Academic Directors coordinate students with their advisors.

Unlike the all-volunteer PMA team, Academic Directors are “full time, Ph.D.-level staff who might also teach on campus,” Copeland said. These staff members have residential offices and oversee the academic progress of nearly 450 freshmen and sophomores who live close by.

“Matching is a really fun, intractable problem,” Copeland said. “We get to know the advisors and what types of students they like. Then, we read the students’ responses and try to think of which advisor the student would have a productive conversation with.”

The advisor selection process is meticulous, as the eight Academic Directors look at the academic and personal interests of the advisors and of all freshmen and finally hand-pair the two groups.

In a change that will make the PMA role more manageable, 80 new PMAs have joined the program for the 2011-12 school year, bringing the total to 310 advisors from 230 a year ago. This increase allows for each PMA to meet advisee groups of only six students instead of eight in 2010.

One common misconception is that PMAs should reflect the students’ prospective majors. According to Copeland, this commonality alone does not ensure a good relationship.

“In their forms, students often mention a number of different interests,” she said. “Sometimes, [students and advisors] share a language, sometimes a home town. It could be anything.”

Copeland said UAR understands that academic interests of freshmen are very likely to change within the course of a year, so matches are sometimes made based on a side interest. She challenges the freshman class to “try to get to know enough about their PMA to figure out why they are paired” even if the connection is not readily apparent.

As for the PMAs themselves, Lythcott-Haims said the breakdown of advisors is roughly one-third faculty, one-third academic staff whose primary role is to research and one-third non-academic staff, including staff in student affairs and athletics and alumni. All advisors must have an advanced degree.

“If you have an advanced degree, you are able to appreciate the undergraduate experience that much more,” Lythcott-Haims said.

UAR continues to adjust the program to fit students’ needs and has solicited the feedback of the Class of 2014 through a recent survey — as well as by listening to the advising experiences of ASSU Undergraduate Senators Janani Ramachandran ’14 and Karl Kumodzi ’14.

Both students volunteered to speak at a PMA training session and expect their contributions to be considered in future years. The committee Ramachandran heads on the Senate, Academic Affairs, also plans to approach UAR about increasing peer-to-peer mentoring within academic departments.

While the program seeks continued improvement, the promise of the mandatory advising program is evident in the fact that UAR saw an increase in sophomores who reconnected with their PMAs, Copeland said. She believes this is due to the fact that freshmen were required to meet with their advisors.

“[Sophomores] got back in touch and really took advantage of the resource,” Copeland said.

These PMAs are not compensated any more than an occasional free lunch at the Faculty Club. Lythcott-Haims said they advise simply for a reason that she labels “psychic currency” — or the reward of hearing a freshman or sophomore advisee say, “you made a difference in my life” or “I appreciate you.”

Feedback indicates that advisors often reap as much from the program as their advisees do.

“Serving as a Pre-Major Advisor has been extremely enjoyable and rewarding,” Jennifer Dionne, assistant professor of material science and engineering, said. “I have enjoyed reconnecting with my 18-year-old self through the experiences of my advisees. They are a joy to work with.”

Contact Lauryn Williams at [email protected].

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