From advisors' lips to students' ears

From advisors' lips to students' ears McGill University

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McGill Reporter
November 8, 2001 - Volume 34 Number 05
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 34: 2001-2002 > November 8, 2001 > From advisors' lips to students' ears
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From advisors' lips to students' ears

Camped outside Troy for 10 years, the Greek armies looked to the aged Nestor for guidance; the Lost Generation had Gertrude Stein to help them find their roadmaps; the Sun King had Cardinal Richelieu lighting his way.

And McGill students -- what do they get? Where are the mentors of today? And how can anyone carry out all of the tasks necessary to help students on the journey to enlightenment and/or employment?

The truth is, no one person can perform this role.

"The delivery of advice is scattered," explains Associate Vice-Principal (Academic Services) Nick De Takacsy. "I do not know how to make 'one-stop' advising work -- the amount of information covered in that one stop would have to cover the entire University."

Instead, the labour of guidance has been fragmented by the complex formalities of the University. Thus the advisors who steer students through the labyrinth of program, faculty and university requirements, as well as the Scylla and Charybdis of university demands and youthful exploration: the faculty advisor, the departmental advisor, the peer advisor, and all of the other various counselling services that address the needs of bodies, minds and bank accounts.

And the first resort, in most instances, is the faculty or department advisor.

When seas are turbulent, the advisor's job is to help keep students afloat and send them to the proper havens. But the primary strategy is to direct students to calm passages so that their academic journey will be less fraught with anxieties. Advisors are the pilots of academe; they know where the hidden shoals and reefs of university life might lie, and can steer students from danger.

Navigating the university experience begins early: when new students in the Faculty of Arts and Science gambol onto the campus greens in September, they are encouraged to meet with the "freshman advisor," who helps them choose courses for their programs.

"Lots of these advisors are graduate students, often coming back year after year," explains Associate Dean of Arts (Student Affairs) Enrica Quaroni. This recidivism is helpful for McGill, and the advisors, as their training is quite intense: learning hefty rule books and attending a series of training sessions.

Much freshman advising is now web-based, though -- students email their course choices, and advisors ensure that the selections work for the program of study. Because of this innovation, advisors have more time to do follow-ups at the beginning of term. "They phone [new students] to ask how they're doing and if the courses are okay," says Quaroni. "The feedback we're getting from students is that they are very happy that people are paying attention to them."

First-year selections are less of a concern in some of the other faculties, such as law and engineering. Says Veronique Bélanger, assistant dean of student affairs in the Faculty of Law, "We don't have a systematic advising of incoming students, as the first-year program is set. Instead, all advising is on a need-to basis, reacting to an individual student's needs at that point."

Programs in engineering, as in law, are quite structured, so course selection is less of a pressing concern for new students; in addition, each student is assigned a faculty member who will act as an academic advisor to address questions and concerns about courses and, later, career opportunities.

But this proactive approach to preparing students does not eliminate all threats; trouble is inevitable, and when it happens, students search out their advisors once again.

Perhaps the busiest times for advisors, after the start-of-term course planning and registration frenzy, fall around course withdrawal dates and exam periods. "All of us have to be available to students then," says Rosa Colaianni, one of six full-time advisors in the Faculties of Arts and Science.

Problems at this point can run from financial to physiological to psychological, and too often students compound difficulties by waiting until the last moment to seek out help.

Says Quaroni, "Some students really don't want to admit that they have difficulties, or they think they can handle them on their own. But at the last minute, they realize they're in trouble. Late in the term, though, it's difficult to find options." After the freshman year, says Quaroni, much advising in arts and science involves dealing with students in crisis.

The same holds true for other faculties. In the Faculty of Law, Bélanger regularly meets students to discuss personal problems. "I listen to their concerns. If I don't feel equipped to help people who have major problems, I encourage them to seek help with professionals, and to point them to the correct services."

But, she notes, for first year students who are stretched and overwhelmed by the university experience, often it is simply a question of reassuring them of their capacity to get through a demanding program.

The Faculty of Engineering offers similar challenges to students. Says faculty student advisor Judy Pharo, "The program is structured like a triangle, so students often get caught in a roadblock because they need the prerequisites to move to the next level. If they don't do well in a course, it hobbles them. Then we have to look at ways of working the program so that they'll complete it without too much of a delay."

Completing the program -- or getting close to completion -- brings a new set of concerns, mainly around employment. In engineering, students need reassurance that their degrees are flexible -- a degree in mechanical engineering doesn't prohibit one from getting employed in a job more traditionally associated with civil engineering, for instance.

Also, notes Pharo, "they know that they're expected to understand economics, and management, and to have excellent communication skills, and some feel they are lacking in those areas." To address these perceived deficiencies, the faculty is looking into ways of offering specialized workshops.

Job counselling is more difficult in non-professional programs. Much job advice comes from departmental advisors, typically faculty members who can direct students to what courses they might be interested in, but may not have a grasp of the job market.

As De Takacsy explains, "When a student comes in saying 'What are the career opportunities for physics students?' some faculty members could help them, others not. There are professors who have done pure mathematics all their lives -- the University has picked them because they come up with beautiful ideas, not because they are very conversant with the best uses of mathematics in insurance companies." At this point, the student is redirected to Career and Placement Services.

And yet another option exists to address at least some questions confronting students: the peer advisor, students who are specially trained to help direct other students in need.

According to Nathan Naidoo, vice president of academic affairs for the Arts Undergraduate Society (AUS), peer advisors provide "a key opportunity, especially for newer students, to speak with someone who can fully appreciate their perspective."

Say a student is pondering the number of courses to take in one term: would five courses be too much if one is also trying to hold down a part-time job? Rather than simply asking friends, who aren't necessarily acquainted with the arcana of University regulations, the confused or bewildered can get direction from someone with grounding in these rules but sharing the student point of view. The peer advisor program is supported by both the AUS and the Science Undergraduate Society.

With all of the complexities of the advising structure, there are bound to be complaints, and they often fall into the ear -- eventually, at any rate -- of McGill's ombudsperson, Carol Cumming-Speirs.

Long wait times for appointments during peak seasons is a common concern, and Cumming-Speirs has lobbied the Senate to add to the number of advisors.

Another problem involves students taking courses in programs other than those to which they have been admitted. "For instance," illustrates Cumming-Speirs, "a student wants to get into the B Com program, but [is accepted] into Arts instead. From then on, though, the student takes only commerce courses. Then, in the third year, the student feels entitled to graduate from the preferred B Com program because he has taken all of those courses, and shares the profile of a B Com student, but finds to his horror that he can graduate neither from that program nor from the one he's registered in."

The situation recurs frequently, she says, but is it an advising issue? Or is it a question of gate-keeping? "Usually students are quite aware of what they're doing, and are gambling that it will work," she notes.

The lesson, perhaps, is that advice given is not always followed. Or perhaps it is that in some instances advising simply needs to be more vigorous. But despite the odd dilemma, and frequent bouts of high-stress activity, "We really all enjoy our jobs," says Colaianni. "You need to enjoy working with people as well as administrative work, which takes a special kind of person. And it's especially rewarding when students tell you that you have made a difference and helped them in what could have been a difficult time." That's all in the job description, and in a term's work, for the pilots of the ivy halls.

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