— Kathleen A. Welsch
I have a confession to make. I enjoy advising.
On its most basic level, the process of guiding students to a four-year graduation is like a logic problem. Making sure that advisees meet general education, major, and program certification requirements is challenging enough, but diminishing course offerings and numbers of sections present new complications to contend with. However, when advisees reach senior year and we’re completing the graduation application, I always feel a sense of accomplishment.
For students, the logic of check sheets and degree audits is new and they need to be taught how to decipher them and to monitor their progress. I tell them: “I don’t like senior year surprises and if we’re both monitoring your degree audit, we shouldn’t have any.”
Just this past week, a course in which three of my advisees were enrolled was cancelled. All three emailed me: one to inform me of the alternative course she’d chosen, the next to tell me she’d checked her degree audit and course listings and wanted me to verify that she’d made the best choice, and the third to ask if and how she might enroll in an online course designated for online degree students only. All three are clearly learning to monitor their progress while keeping me in the loop and truly using me as an advisor by asking for advice. Seeing them take the reins of their education gives me a sense of satisfaction as well as pleasure.
But advising is so much more than telling students which courses to take. As a novice in the discipline of their major, students need to be mentored and introduced to opportunities at the university and in their field. Who better to provide this guidance than an advisor?
When I first meet advisees, I like to ask why they’ve chosen their major and where they imagine themselves in ten years. The conversation that results from this inquiry not only allows me to learn something about them, but also gives me the opportunity to suggest particular courses or to discuss professional avenues or internships they may not have considered. The more they understand about their discipline beyond course requirements, the better prepared they are to make smart academic and professional choices for themselves.
As much as I push students to take charge of their education on every level, there are times when they are truly stymied and need the intervention of an advisor. When there’s a glitch in the system, for example, that will derail a student’s progress to graduation, advisors need to be an advocate for advisees. Early this summer, an advisee scheduled to graduate in December emailed me to say she’d been notified that a required course was filled and she was advised to enroll in another. While we could find an alternative course to fill the degree requirement, there were no other Information Literacy flag courses available. Without the flag, she wouldn’t graduate, so I contacted the dean about waiving the requirement. Problem solved.
Not so easily solved was the problem of the graduating senior with a family emergency at the end of the term. Although she’d contacted me and I’d advised her to request incompletes, I didn’t know until after graduation that she hadn’t graduated. She hadn’t received responses from all of her professors and, rather than deep six her GPA, she saw only a single option this late in the semester: to withdraw from the university. This was a complicated academic and financial dilemma in which she needed an advisor’s guidance on how to proceed and an advisor willing to advocate on her behalf with administration to reach a more satisfying resolution. While I practice that kind of advising, I can only do so when a student keeps me informed of critical matters. This situation will be my cautionary tale to advisees this fall about the importance of keeping their advisor in the loop.
Of course there are those students who choose to ignore their advisor no matter how many times we attempt to contact them. I see such students as young adults making poor decisions. I can’t force them to meet with me, and I’m not going to chase them down. I can only offer a welcoming invitation.
On the whole though, I like getting to know my advisees and watching their academic and personal growth. I enjoy discussing course options, professional opportunities, and life in general with them.
It’s easy at times to get frustrated when they get things wrong. It’s easy to assume that because we told them something once, they should know what we know, but the majority of our students are first-generation in college and many don’t have parents to show them the ropes or explain what to expect. So we have a significant number of students here on their own, grappling with the challenge of college courses and learning to navigate the university system. Who better than an advisor to teach them the secret handshake or the map for success?
Kathleen Welsch is a professor of English at Clarion University and also teaches in the Women & Gender Studies Program. She challenges students in all her classes to consider issues of power of language, gender, and class. Her areas of specialty are composition-rhetoric and women’s and working-class literature. She has edited the book Those Winter Sundays: Female Academics and Their Working-Class Parents. The passions in her life include teaching, writing, and life with equines and felines.