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The Anatomy of an Adviser

Everyone's heard the stories.

The distant ones.

"There are too many students and too few advisers," senior Yessenia Castillo complains. "When you walk into the office they don't even know who you are, even though you were there just the other day. They don't look you up by name, but by your number. That is who you are to your academic adviser."

The aloof ones.

"My pre-major adviser, he was a great guy, but he was a little too lovey-dovey," senior Stephanie Okpala recalls. "He was like, 'Just explore your options.' And he made me feel as if I could do whatever I wanted for the next few years. But once I got a hold of what I wanted to do, I realized I should've been on track immediately following freshman year, if not freshman year."

The glass-half-empty ones.

"I feel like they try to discourage you when you're doing badly instead of filling you with hope and that's not what an adviser is supposed to do," Castillo continues. "They're supposed to give you options."

And just the bureaucracy of it all.

"It was a little annoying to me because I'm one of those people who knows where they're going and what they want to do, and I don't feel like I need an adviser, so it's more of an annoyance that I have to even go to academic advising," Okpala says. "It's a little inconvenient."

Advisers don't necessarily have the best reputations on campus.

But there are the good as well.

"My advising has been amazing. My freshman adviser was very engaged, but I know that it wasn't the case for a lot of people," sophomore Danny Mammo says. "It sounds too good to be true, but she really was amazing, and I still keep in touch with her even though I have another adviser."

In fact, Mammo's adviser helped him become a "mentor" to his friends who were less fortunate in their adviser assignments.

Academic advising at Duke falls into two forms: pre-major and major. For freshmen, first-year advising may be one of the most crucial elements to truly beginning college on the right foot. From choosing suitable courses to understanding University policy, they need the extra direction and support. After all, any student who first clicks through course descriptions is sure to be overwhelmed by the sheer number of choices available.

Once students declare a major, the second half of advising begins. Although first-year advisers are randomly assigned based somewhat on students' interests, major advisers are more specific to the students' academic pursuits. And unlike the 130 pre-major advisers who are all volunteers, faculty members are expected to serve as major mentors.

Director of the Academic Advising Center Michele Rasmussen says many students have the misguided notion that advisers are supposed to help them find the right majors or career tracks.

"[Students'] perceptions of good advising is an adviser who is an expert in what they want to do, but it's not consistent with our goal in pre-major advising," she explains. "Part of the challenge is helping students understand that an academic adviser in college is not the same as a guidance counselor in high school."

For advisers like Donna Dyer, the 2008 recipient of the Excellence in Academic Advising Award, the system is less about course selection and major requirements and more about encouraging students.

"I do think that students now are really looking for meaningful lives, and I think that includes work-life balance and economic security," she says. "I'm going to tell you, 'Yes don't take that professor if you're not interested in becoming a major' or 'Don't take that class because it's too easy.'

"But I'm also going to try to empower you as a student.... I want everyone to have a wonderful Duke freshman and sophomore year. That's my goal."

Sometimes students may forget that their advisers also have an array of other responsibilities, from teaching to publishing to researching to any assortment of departmental obligations.

"Advising is right in there [with their duties]," Rasmussen says. "The more you load on to a faculty member, the more something has to give."

Depending on the major, professors may have well over a dozen students to be held accountable for. But they claim advising is not a chore.

"I've never had anybody complain about being an adviser," Professor David Rabiner says. "As far as I know, all of the faculty take their responsibility as an adviser seriously. Some faculty see that as a very important and valuable part of what they do, and there's going to be some variability in how much faculty sort of go above and beyond what is considered typical advising."

For example, Rabiner and Lecturer Ken Rogerson both volunteer to take on freshmen advisees in addition to their full-load major advising responsibilities.

Obviously there is a spectrum of adviser quality, but the question is, when is it the advisers' fault, and when is it the students'?

After all, if students have issues with an adviser, why don't they speak up to administrators? Why do they turn to their peers to complain? And more importantly, why don't students switch if they aren't happy?

According to Rasmussen, no first-year adviser has been dismissed of their advising duties because of negative evaluations. That isn't to say there hasn't been an unhelpful member of the staff, but rather, students haven't spoken up about their displeasures.

"We may not get it right the first time. And whatever it might be, from different schedules to conflicting personalities, we can take a look at it," she says. "They don't have to be stoic and stick with it."

Of course, it could be worse.

At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, students meet with a centralized advising center rather than professors in their major. In many cases, the students fail to form any relationship with the adviser, in a system where each student is merely another tally for each over-worked adviser.

"My son goes to Carolina and he never saw the same adviser twice," Dyer says. "They have an advising staff and have their computers, and he never built a relationship with somebody. [Our system] is better because at least there's one person who has talked to you at least a few times. Could people make a bigger commitment to advising? Probably.

"It's a system that can always get better, but it does provide the opportunity for someone like me to develop a relationship with students and for students to develop a relationship with me."

That isn't to say the system is flawless. There is no set formula to suddenly creating the perfect adviser, or advisee for that matter. No matter the training, not every student is going to find a lifelong mentor through advising.

But before students completely disregard advising, they should consider the after effects of failing to provide any feedback. After all, if nothing else, they can help improve the system for the next generation.


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