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Pre-major advising program gets mixed feedback

The Pre-Major Advising program touches the academic journey of every undergraduate student at Stanford, albeit with varying degrees of effectiveness.

The program matches each freshman with an advisor who has similar academic interests; a student’s enrollment is placed on hold each quarter until they meet with their advisor. The student continues meeting with their pre-major advisor (PMA) until they have declared their major.

Associate Dean in Undergraduate Advising Kirsti Copeland, who oversees the Academic Advising Director and PMA programs, said in an e-mail that although PMAs aren’t expected to know everything about Stanford, they are intended to ease the transition to college.

“Ideally, a PMA helps students get oriented in ways that include connecting them to resources and other people around Stanford, encouraging them to explore across the curriculum and find their own academic path at Stanford, and being someone who is supportive of them both academically and personally,” Copeland wrote.

Students have mixed feelings about the program’s effectiveness.

“My PMA has been really helpful,” said Kara Glenwright ’20. “I wasn’t sure about what the PMA was supposed to do the first time we met, but my PMA asked me about what I wanted out of my Stanford experience and opportunities I can have on campus.”

For Glenwright, the advising hasn’t always just been about what classes to take but rather broader tips for success at Stanford.

“[My PMA] has been a good resource that has made me feel more comfortable on campus by letting me know that I can approach other faculty,” Glenwright said. “I can approach him if I ever needed help.”

Others, such as Romeo Umaña ’19, find the sessions useful even though their PMA’s interests were not directly aligned with their own.

“[When] I was talking about my interests, I listed political stuff, but I wasn’t really sure if I wanted to pursue that in school,” Umaña said. “The fact that [my PMA] wasn’t really aligned with my academic interests is pretty cool, because we ended up talking about what it’s like in her department. She talked to me about taking an [international relations] class, which I didn’t really take up, but I’m taking political science classes and she’d probably be really happy to hear that.”

Students reacted positively to the program for different reasons, but others did not find their advising helpful; a few shared their experiences anonymously with The Daily.

A junior majoring in product design described her advising as unhelpful because her PMA’s position did not relate to her interests.

“I was deciding between biomechanical engineering, mechanical engineering and product design,” she said. “While this professor was related on a surface level [to my undergraduate interests], that didn’t correlate in any way to how to get there from an undergraduate standpoint.”

The junior believes that the majority of students benefit very little from the PMA program and worried that the requirement to meet with the advisor may lead to stressful situations when schedules don’t align. She recalled a quarter where she was unable to schedule a meeting with her PMA, so the advisor sent her five questions and asked her to write two paragraphs each in response to in lieu of the meeting.

A freshman interested in computer science said that, for him, the PMA program hasn’t been helpful because it doesn’t address serious topics.

“Every time we meet is just focused around small talk and how we are doing, but [doesn’t really delve] into the deeper issues,” the student said. “It’s just more steps between us and enrollment that Stanford imposes upon us that don’t really help.”

Another freshman expressed her frustration with the program, mentioning that even though fall quarter is coming to an end, she has never met her PMA.

“I haven’t met with my PMA at all, and I have only been able to reach his secretary even though I have been trying to schedule a meeting since New Student Orientation,” said the undeclared freshman. “If you are a PMA, you should definitely be able to meet with your advisees and [for me], it is a struggle because I needed him to lift the hold on my enrollment and he hasn’t done that yet.”

From the advisor perspective, Mark Branom ’95, M.A. ’96, a lecturer at Stanford’s Continuing Studies Department, has been a freshman advisor for around 17 years and finds his role satisfying.

“The main reason that I became a PMA is that when I was a freshman, I had a terrible advisor that didn’t know anything about the University at all, and when I started working at Stanford, I vowed that I would give students pretty good advice, and whether they listen to me and beyond that, it’s up to them,” Branom said.

When asked about what he thinks his role as a PMA entails, Branom said his goal is to really know the student and their interests in order to help them discover where they “should be going.”

However, Branom also acknowledged that he may view the PMA role differently than other advisors.

“I don’t know that I would say that all PMAs should feel that way, because I am unique in that I used to work in administration, so I know how Stanford works and who you should talk to to get stuff done … I was a Stanford student, so I know how classes are or how they used to be,” Branom said.

According to Copeland, advisors and freshmen are hand-matched each year by their dorm’s Academic Advising Director, based on the interests and preferences of both the PMAs and students as well as on the letter that freshmen write to their prospective PMAs.

Copeland mentioned that because no advisor takes on more than six advisees and because students’ interests often change, the process may be imperfect. This issue is compounded by the impossibility of predicting beforehand how a student and their PMA will relate.

When asked about the strengths and difficulties of the program,  Copeland responded that “the strength of the PMA program is the sheer number of volunteers and the reach that 500 volunteer advisors have with only four to six advisees,” and “the real difficulty is that we are talking about nearly 3,500 relationships, since PMAs work with both first-year students and sophomores.”

Regarding the feedback they receive about the program, Copeland mentioned that about a third of PMA-advisee relationships are rated excellent, about a third are thought to add some value and about a third are believed to add little to no value. In some instances, a PMA might be evaluated in all of these ways by different advisees.

Copeland encourages students who don’t feel like their relationship with their PMA is as helpful as they would like to reach out to their Academic Advising Director for advice on how to improve their relationship with their PMA and build other mentoring relationships on campus.

In 2013, Undergraduate Advising and Research (UAR) tried to improve the pre-major advising program by adding the role of director of pre-major advising. According to Copeland, the position has made recruiting PMAs easier, which should in turn help students by giving them a broader pool of advisors to be matched with.

Copeland also said that UAR is running focus groups on the PMA program to find both what is working well and what can be improved. She asked for interested students to contact Alice Petty, director of pre-major advising (aapetty@stanford.edu), if they wish to participate.

In addition to these changes, the PMA program is still looking to make improvements. Louis Newman, the new UAR director, will be launching a more comprehensive evaluation of the Pre-Major Advising program that will require input from faculty, students and staff to improve the experience for everyone involved.

Contact Ana Cabrera at acabr124 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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