Columbian blues: students pay for communication gaps with advisors

Anne Henderson will graduate on the Ellipse this May with honors in English. Henderson takes pride in this accomplishment, but a thought still lingers in her mind – she has only taken two upper-level English courses at GW.

To graduate with a degree from the Columbian School, students must complete a solid sample of classes in all of the humanities and sciences. But Henderson did not learn of the Columbian School of Arts and Sciences requirements she needed to graduate until her senior year after returning from a year abroad. Unexpectedly, she discovered that she would not be able to take any English classes at GW.

Earning the proper number of credits in each area, transferring in credit from courses taken overseas and, most importantly, graduating on time are perplexing problems for some Columbian School students. And many students blame the advising system for blunders, complaining that advisors lift holds and sign on the dotted lines, but do not guide.

Columbian School staffers point out that students are ultimately responsible for getting themselves through and out of college. Advising, they say, is a dialogue that needs two participants.

Henderson studied abroad her junior year at Oxford University in England, earning 36 credits toward her English major in the Columbian School.

Before departing for Oxford, she approached the English department to discuss requirements and any problems she might face fulfilling the course work.

“I went to the English department and they said I would have no problems,” Henderson said.

But when she returned to GW she found that she did face an obstacle – she needed more non-English courses to graduate.

Columbian School requires students to enroll in core requirement courses during the course of their four years at GW, Henderson said.

“I did not have enough non-English credits,” she said. “I had no idea before hand I couldn’t take any more English courses.

“As interesting as bioethics is, I would much rather take an English course,” Henderson laughed.

Henderson is daunted by the words “with honors” on her diploma – her transcript only shows two upper-level GW English courses. The fact that only two professors in the GW English department have seen her work on a regular basis also complicates her search for professor recommendations.

“The nature of the problems of study abroad are very specific,” Henderson explained.

She must rely on the professors she left in England to testify for her work.

The delayed notification of Columbian School requirements caught Nell Whiting off guard during her senior year, when she declared a major in English.

Whiting decided upon her major in the middle of sophomore year, but was advised against declaring at that time. She was advised to wait until she returned from a junior year spent studying abroad at the University of East Anglia in England, she said.

“I was told not to worry about it,” Whiting said.

Two or three weeks into the spring semester of 1998 – second semester of her senior year – the Columbian School told Whiting she needed 10 credits more to graduate – credits she could not earn by the end of this semester.

“I would have had to take 19 credits to graduate (by the end of the semester),” Whiting said. “I sufficiently freaked out.”

Whiting also faced the problem of filling non-English course credit requirements. She thought she had finished her core requirements – but she thought wrong.

Because of delayed notification, Whiting will spend her summer at GW taking courses. The summer course work will cost twice as much as she pays for fall or spring semesters, Whiting said.

“I have to figure out how to pay for this,” she said.

Whiting has run into problems job hunting. Employers usually hire when the new batch of graduates arrive in the job market in June, not August, Whiting said.

Whiting said she expected Columbian advisors to inform her of any snags in her credits. Because nobody contacted her, she assumed everything was fine.

“I wanted to get some sense of where I was,” Whiting said. “I would have expected a letter.”

When Whiting confronted the Columbian School, she was told that the majority of GW students take more than four years to complete their undergraduate work. Sending letters to all of these students would be a cumbersome task, Columbian School administrators explained.

“I was told if they sent out letters to everyone, it would waste their time and the time of the students,” Whiting said. “So basically those of us who are completing in four years are screwed.”

Both Whiting and Henderson said that more attention from Columbian School advisors, the study abroad office or the English department could have helped them.

But Henderson pointed out that communication was lacking on both ends.

“If I had initiated it, they would have helped,” she admitted. “It’s just as much my fault, even though there is a lot more (the Columbian School) could have done.”

Whiting explained that advisors need to be engaged in students’ academics beginning freshman year. A sudden burst of advising attention second semester senior year comes too late. By then, the student is set either to graduate or to take summer school.

“My freshman advisor never really knew me,” Whiting said. “I saw him twice a year to get the (advising) hold taken off.”

Freshman Dorothy Robinson, who plans to major in English and minor in philosophy, said her freshman advisor answered questions when asked. She was frustrated, though, that she was not given advice to propel her into the major.

Although he did not know much about English, Robinson had a good relationship with her advisor. “He did what he was supposed to,” she said.

Robinson said that students should take a more active role in plotting their education. “You should not wait till your advisor comes to you,” she explained.

Whiting, on the other hand, remembered dropping out of a freshman course she thought was unnecessary. It turned out that she needed to fulfill the credit – but her advisor never explained that.

“If I had searched him out he would have helped,” Whiting noted. “But beyond the confines of his work there was nothing.”

Junior Rob Hendin, a political communication major, noted the importance of student involvement.

The Columbian School balance sheet lists two columns – graduation requirements already fulfilled, and those still needed. Keeping a copy of the balance sheet is one of the best ways for students to advise themselves, Hendin said.

“The balance sheet is like a countdown to exactly what you have left,” he said. “It is always nice to know you are on the same page as Columbian School.”

Robinson, however, said she has never even heard the term “balance sheet.” As a freshman she said she tries to learn about her requirements by reading the GW Bulletin.

Advisors and students should examine the students’ reasons for signing up for each class during the registration period, Hendin said. He is lucky – his advisors ensure he knows the requirement each class fulfills.

Columbian School Dean Kim Moreland sees advisors through a different lens. She pointed out that advising is a two-way street – students need to play an active role by asking pertinent questions about graduation, credits and majors.

“It is an ongoing conversation between the advisor and the students through their four years,” Moreland explained.

She insisted that Columbian School strives to guide its students. The school recently surveyed the departments to find out the number of advisors and the systems used.

Moreland also explained that advisors keep a “meticulously thorough” file for each student. The files mark the progression toward graduation, she said.

Rahul Patel, a senior environmental studies and biology major, tells a different story. His file was less than thorough, leading to confusion as Patel tried to sort out his paperwork.

“They seem to misplace (documents),” Patel said.

Patel found out this year that credits for Spanish classes he took at Temple University during his junior year summer were never added to his transcript. He w
as shocked – his petition for the credits had long since been accepted by the school.

Luckily, Patel maintained his own document file. He whipped out his copy of the petition, and the credits were added to his transcript.

The danger of summer course work, delayed graduation and extra tuition dollars was avoided because Patel kept records. He believes in documentation.

“It is the student’s responsibility,” Patel said.

A Columbian School balance sheet should help students keep their requirements straight, Moreland said.

Students also should set appointments for graduation dates early to avoid last-minute surprises.

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.