By Peter Kelley, University Week
Cynthia Anderson is paying it forward, extending to others the sort of guidance she was once given as a new and uncertain transfer student.
In her third year as academic adviser for the Comparative History of Ideas program, Anderson loves her work and is deeply appreciated by her colleagues. She's a perfect choice, then, for a 2009 Distinguished Staff Award.
"It's a bit mesmerizing to watch the changes in facial expression as students come and go through her office door," wrote History Professor John Toews in a letter supporting Anderson's award nomination. "My sense is that Cynthia really does believe that every student is a miracle waiting to happen and that her absolute sincerity about this also convinces the students with whom she is consulting."
He's right — Anderson knows from personal experience how academic advising can help bring life choices into focus. What students want is available at the UW, she said with a smile. "You just have to dig a little."
She also knows that things change for students. That's why when planning with students she stresses that nothing is carved in stone. "I say, 'This is on paper, but it doesn't have to stick. Life happens, and you can change this plan.' I think as a student that always made me feel good, knowing it can change."
Her own story is not unlike those of the students she now assists. She was born in Pakistan but was adopted and raised in Sequim, Wash. The first in her family to graduate from a four-year college, she went right after high school but, like some at that age, it just didn't feel right. She took a few years off, then returned to school at Seattle Central Community College. Her varied interests caught the eye of an instructor, who suggested she look into the UW's CHID program.
"He gave me a pamphlet, and it's the same pamphlet I give students now — though we've changed it a bit," Anderson said.
She transferred to the UW and flourished in the CHID program. Then just before graduation, Amy Peloff, the program's assistant director, took her aside to talk about the new position of undergraduate adviser. "She encouraged me to apply for it, and it turned out to be this perfect transition into being able to do what I wanted to do, but didn't quite know where I was going to find it."
That Peloff feels the selection has worked out well is dramatically obvious in her support letter. Peloff wrote that as an administrator she is committed to providing "a hands-on, student-centered advising model." Of Anderson, she said, "Cynthia doesn't just share my vision of undergraduate advising, she has upgraded, enhanced, improved, and in general, just blown it out of the water since she has taken on the role of CHID adviser."
Anderson returns the praise, saying her CHID colleagues are "like family." She's fond and proud of the students she helps, too. "I think of it as a privilege to be a student at the UW, and to be in an environment that's nourishing and supportive," she said. She added that she reminds students that "there are 10 doors open for every one that is closed — they just haven't found it yet."
Anderson also has shown the ability to step beyond her role as adviser when needed. Peloff noted in her letter that programmatic decisions sparked an "all-consuming crisis" that Anderson helped to resolve last year. "As the adviser, Cynthia was in the middle of students, faculty and staff who were all trying to figure out how to communicate with each other across the divides of race, power, and difference. … The grace with which she navigated this untenable position was beautiful. She simply refused to compromise the integrity with which she supported each CHID student and the program as a whole.
Witnessing as students build their lives and academic careers never gets old for Anderson. "We work in the system and can show them where to go, but the fun part is getting to watch it all work for them and be there when they realize why all of it matters to them personally."
She's delighted about her award, especially since it comes through the good wishes of her colleagues, and the students with whom she has worked.
"We get the best students!" she said. "It's different every single time someone comes in — my job is never the same."