By Shelley Gao
Last week, I compared the need to expand resources for students interested in attaining advanced degrees in non-professional schools to the perpetual imperative for pre-major advising reform. After receiving some responses to my column, it appears that the University has adopted structural improvements for the Class of 2012 and 2013.
The changes look fine. We complain about advising all the time. But, seriously, how much reform can the University realistically implement, anyway? I argue that the current framework is adequate. Only two things matter: encouraging more tenure track faculty to participate and care about pre-major advising and making students understand that advising is ultimately their responsibility.
From an official source in Undergraduate Advising and Research (UAR), three major alterations have occurred since my freshman year. Starting with the Class of 2012, an Academic Director is assigned to each residence. The intent is for these Academic Directors to remain a resource for students until major declaration in sophomore year. Undoubtedly, they serve a useful role in addressing a broad spectrum of academic issues in the preliminary stages of one’s Stanford career, ranging from illuminating academic opportunities on campus and helping with course sequencing to providing support for freshmen adapting to college life.
In this academic year alone, I have been told that 4,601 individual undergraduates have met with UAR advisers, which include Academic Directors and staff in Sweet Hall and the Athletic Academic Resource Center. Clearly, these advisers play a tremendously useful role in undergraduate education. I have found them to be wonderfully caring individuals, adept at strategic planning. They are particularly helpful in soothing my doubts and devising how to best approach faculty with my plans.
Second, attention has been devoted to enhancing academic programming for sophomores. Activities like the Sophomore Symposium and Majors Night are designed to help students research different interests or hone in to their specific interests. Third, the University has taken steps to strengthen the pre-major advisers system, where faculty and staff volunteer to serve as advisers for eight freshmen. Additional faculty members have been recruited and any staff that serve in that role now are required to have an advanced degree. Among all these reforms, it is pre-major advising that matters most. Although we have a terrific group of professional staff, their primary role should be to connect students to the faculty. Nothing can replace interaction with actual scholars in a field.
There is not much the University can do in terms of encouraging faculty to serve as pre-major advisers. After the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education’s (VPUE) cut in honoraria for pre-major faculty advising during the budget crisis last year, faculty will now have even less incentive to invest their time in freshman advising. This will exacerbate the concern that incoming students receive poorly matched advisers.
The first interaction almost all Stanford students have with faculty is during a 20 minute meeting with their adviser during New Student Orientation. I recall my nervous excitement manifested in over-preparation for that meeting two years ago. After reviewing the Stanford Bulletin and going through my major requirements, I printed out a discussion agenda and a carefully constructed four year plan. For some, this very first meeting could lead to a long and fruitful mentorship experience. For others, it did not last beyond that day. I belonged to the latter category. Sure, sometimes things work out and other times they do not. Cultivating mentorships can certainly be interpreted as a process of experimentation.
However, the steep gradation of satisfaction reported in pre-major advising suggests that not all faculty approach freshmen advising with the same degree of commitment. Personality fit, temperament and worldview, in addition to intellectual interests, do play a significant role in forming and sustaining advising relationships, but it is also the mindset of approaching these interactions that is instrumental. Freshmen tend to take these interactions very seriously. ProFros were asking me about reading lists and syllabi for classes during Admit Weekend last week, even before they were enrolled at Stanford.
Looking back, my path has not followed my initial four year plan at all. Perhaps that is a good thing. An organic evolution and sometimes even accidental discovery of our interests may be a more rewarding journey. For those students who are left rather disillusioned with their assigned adviser, there are numerous opportunities along the Stanford trajectory to find faculty mentors. Whether it is through working as a research assistant or taking seminars, the potential to cultivate excellent advising relationships is definitely possible.
Ultimately, the burden for cultivating faculty advisers lies with the individual students. The University certainly can do more to increase tenure track faculty participation. But, Stanford already offers a good framework, and most importantly, a collection of some of the world’s most brilliant scholars. It is up to the student to adopt a proactive approach in his or her intellectual development.
Shelley Gao ’11 writes weekly about campus issues. Contact Shelley: [email protected].