UW News

May 18, 2006

Guiding students through the system: New A&S Council on Advising offers help

News and Information

Academic advisers at the UW are faced with a daunting task. They must help undergraduates navigate a dizzying array of options — not just the 170 possible majors available to them, but a growing number of internships, research opportunities, community service options and the possibility of graduate school. Then there is the minutiae of meeting all the requirements and counting credit hours.

In recent years, they have also faced a growing population of undergraduates, all with no increase in advising resources — indeed, probably with fewer resources.

Against this backdrop, the Arts & Sciences Council on Advising was formed last month. The group is composed of advisers from eight academic departments who intend to reach out to their colleagues throughout the college — to address problems of communication among advisers, to examine best practices, and to provide leadership to the advising community.

“For students to be successful, they need a structure of information, and advising is a central piece,” says Paul LePore, assistant dean. “The UW can be unbelievably difficult to navigate. Since most students end up as majors in this college, we thought it was appropriate to develop approaches that would help us maximize the resources that we have, and to develop additional tools that would help support students’ experience at the UW.”

“The job of an adviser is radically different than it was when I started in 1989,” says Melissa Wensel, director of academic services in the English Department. “Back then, a major portion of our job was simply shuffling paper. Now, our work is much more substantial and more student-focused.”

“Counselors in Arts and Sciences end up serving the majority of students,” says Carrie Perrin, director of academic services in the Psychology Department. “Our role is to help students navigate the system and make informed choices. Faculty members provide irreplaceable experience as mentors, and advisers are partners with faculty in helping achieve educational goals. Advisers provide another source of expertise when students need it.”

One of the council’s goals is to develop stronger ties among advisers, bringing in those who work in smaller departments and may feel isolated, LePore says. “Our existing structures don’t necessarily reflect student interests, which typically span disciplinary boundaries. We need to expand the expertise and communication among those who advise undergraduates, to address students’ needs.”

One task the council will assume is to create affiliate clusters of advisers from related disciplines. For example, one such group will band together advisers who work in the environmental and biological sciences; another might bring together those who work in the arts.

“If we are knowledgeable about programs in related disciplines,” says Judi Clark, director of academic advising and student services for the School of Art, “we can help students ask better questions. As someone has said, one of the qualities of being an undergraduate is that you don’t know what you don’t know.”

The council members agree that they don’t see themselves as people who simply advise students of requirements and help them complete the requisite forms; they are professionals, and many of them possess advanced degrees in the discipline. “There’s some confusion about departmental advisers,” Clark says. “We need to do a better job of defining who we are and what we add to a student’s academic experience.”

“The University hasn’t relied on the community of advisers as much as it should for their expertise,” LePore says, “in activities such as searches and curriculum reform. These processes will be better when they have the added voices of advisers, because they are critical to the success of the institution. But I believe things are changing for the better in this regard.”

“We’re very optimistic that we can bring about improvements to the situation. “The report of the Committee to Improve the UW Undergraduate Experience is being implemented, and this council plans to be at the table to participate in discussions about how resources are allocated and finding ways to leverage existing resources.”

One of the group’s goals is to create a more seamless process of advising from the students’ point of view as they move into their major. Now, students officially get their advising through the Gateway Center in their first two years and see departmental advisers only after declaring a major. A smoother transition is possible, council members agree.

“The reality is, we start to see students from the moment they arrive on campus,” Wensel says. “They, or their parents, will seek us out.”

“We need to create continuity for students,” says Cynthia Caci, assistant to the director in Digital Arts and Experimental Media. “I see students during our open house who are interested in digital arts and they want to know if I will be their adviser. Many students, even as high school seniors, have a strong interest in a particular program. We’d like to make ourselves available to them.”

“Students need a home base,” says Perrin, “even if they change their minds about their major several times. That’s when the resources need to come together. They need to talk with human beings and not try and choose their major solely from information they gather at a computer screen.”

Over the coming months, the council plans a self-study of the advising resources available in the college, with an eye toward improving the information flow and identifying current needs. The council plans to meet with Provost Phyllis Wise and others who will be involved in developing a comprehensive plan for advising.