On The Margins, Between the Lines: Working toward a better advising program

Opinion by Jamie Solomon
Nov. 2, 2011, 12:27 a.m.

On The Margins, Between the Lines: Working toward a better advising programIn freshman year, I did not have a very positive experience with our advising program. Neither of my advisors — a faculty member (called a Pre-Major Advisor) and an advisor attached to my residence (my Academic Director) — were very helpful. My Pre-Major Advisor was too busy to truly connect with her students and incredibly unknowledgeable about either our undergraduate curriculum or the majors I was interested in. My Academic Director didn’t seem to care about connecting with students, was very impersonal and seemed almost administrative.

Sophomore year, however, I landed with the perfect advisor for me: Kirsti Copeland, FloMo’s former AD. She’s caring, knowledgeable, accessible and has really gotten to know me to the point that she can easily give me useful advice tailored to my interests. She also makes sure to check in with me, so I know she’s concerned about how well I’m doing. I don’t have to make the conscious decision to reach out to her in order for her to help.

What made the difference between my good advisor and the bad ones? It really boils down to four things: knowledge, commitment, availability and the intangible personal connection. As a freshman, I needed someone who could answer questions about PWR and which Chem series I should take, and tell me about the opportunities on campus I might be interested in. If they didn’t know the answers, they needed to be able to point me to people who could help me find them. They also needed to be available to meet with and reach out to me and care about how I was navigating through Stanford. If they are competent at these other three, the last quality that really makes a standout advisor is someone with whom my personality clicks. The UAR can ensure that its advisors possess the first three qualities; the last one is only solved by having a diversity of advisors and flexibility for students to move between them.

What is the UAR doing to ensure that more of its advisors have these qualities so that fewer students are left on their own as I was freshman year? A lot, actually. There are a number of changes that have taken place since I started at Stanford. To address the issues of availability and commitment, they have tried to reduce the student-to-advisor ratio, allowing faculty members to spend more time on their students. To address the issue of knowledge, they have tried to split the advising experience into two parts. If a student has a question about classes, majors or administrative issues they can go to their AD, whose job it is to know all of this information that pertains to a student’s academic life. The pre-major advisor, on the other hand, is intended to be a student’s first faculty-student relationship and their window into how the university works.

Splitting advising up into these two parts would have solved many of my advising frustrations freshman year. Faculty no longer need to learn all about the undergraduate curriculum and can instead advise using their areas of expertise and ties to the university. Students are not left on their own in terms of their academics because they each have an advisor whose full-time job is to know curricular information. To make this system work, it is important that students understand these two distinct roles so that they are not frustrated when their faculty advisors lack information. Moreover, students must begin a personal relationship with both their ADs and pre-major advisors at the beginning of the year. The UAR is working on making both of these happen.

Even with these changes, there is one piece that I still see missing. Even if a faculty member has committed to being a pre-major advisor and cares about their students, they may not have the ability to spend the time they need to on their advisees. Except for the few professors who personally decide connecting with students is their priority, it can be very hard to get to know a professor because they have so many obligations as part of their career. This is not necessarily a problem the UAR can solve. Although they can only let the faculty that are doing a good job continue to advise, they still must provide an advisor to every student. For the pre-major advising program to truly succeed for every student who needs it, the UAR must create a structure that works for the students and the university must allow its faculty the time and energy to breathe life into the structure. I commend Stanford for working on these issues to improve the student experience and I hope that each year’s students find more knowledgeable, caring and wonderful advisors than the last.

Jamie would love to know how the advising experience has gone for you, so email her at jamiesol “at” stanford “dot” edu to let her know.

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