In advising, questions of how to achieve success

Sophomore Sarah Khederian is frustrated. As a double major in political science and international affairs, she has two advisers and a slew of questions. When she visited her academic counselor in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences for help with registration, the adviser rattled off a prewritten statement that sounded like it came directly from the school’s Web site.

But when she visited her adviser in the Elliott School of International Affairs, he helped her craft a schedule to fit the needs of her double major.

Like many of her peers, Khederian is frustrated by what CCAS students describe as a system that leaves them without the guidance they expected to receive. Students, administrators and advisers all agree there are problems with the current system, but opinions differ on how, and if, the issues can be resolved.

Within GW’s five undergraduate schools, there are a handful of advising systems, ranging from professional, full-time advisers to professors who suggest classes in their spare time.

Earlier this year, University President Steven Knapp said he hears more complaints about advising than anything else, but students and advisers disagree on who is to blame for the problems. In response to student concerns about advising, the University and the Student Association are taking steps to identify possible remedies for these issues.

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CCAS takes the brunt of student complaints about advising. As the University’s largest undergraduate school, CCAS relies heavily on faculty advisers who have other commitments.

The school only employs nine professional advisers, including a director, for more than 5,200 students. There are also a few advisers who only see pre-med and pre-law students. The rest of CCAS’s advising responsibilities are left to faculty advisers who also juggle teaching, grading, researching and holding office hours of their own.

Paul Duff, the associate dean for undergraduate studies for CCAS, said advising is challenging for large colleges across the nation.

“We all know what our problems are,” Duff said. “But we aren’t sure how to address them.”

On E Street, one of GW’s most prestigious schools seems to have figured out a method that works. The Elliott School models its advising system after a successful plan used by the School of Business, said Jim Fry, director of advising for ESIA. Unlike CCAS, the School of Business and the Elliott School rely on professional, full-time advisers.

“We can meet more often with students and can develop and provide materials and programs that allow for exploration and consideration that go beyond scheduling classes,” Fry said. “What’s more, our advisers are able to meet with the same students from one time to the next, so there is a rapport and a cumulative understanding of students’ needs and interests that builds over time.”

But Duff said there are majors within CCAS whose advising methods work better than others. Small departments are particularly successful, and the geology department, which has about 20 students, is one example.

Geology professor and adviser George Stevens said large programs are in a bind because they cannot possibly know all of their advisees.

“I feel we do a pretty good job because we know our students. We know their interests, aptitudes and weaknesses,” Stevens said. “If a student comes looking for course recommendations and I know they are strong or weak in mathematics, I can use that to give the right advice.”

The English department is one of the Columbian College’s largest. Patty Chu, the department’s director of advising, said the relationship between students and advisers varies within the major.

“We ask as a minimum that students see their advisers once a semester but some students choose not to do it, and there’s not much we can do about that,” Chu said.

Full-time faculty are given advising responsibilities unless they have “extensive other duties” such as serving as department head, she said.

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While CCAS occasionally has trouble securing enough advisers, some professors are more than willing to help out.

“When you love University life as much as I do, what could be better than helping first-timers navigate their way through it?” said political science professor and adviser Steven Kelts. “It would be a colossal shame if freshmen got lost and confused here, and weren’t able to find all the fun, learning, and personal growth that awaits them.”

Kelts joked that making time for advising means “cutting out some of my more frivolous activities – like breathing.”

“If you take a look at the list of people who do advising, it’s full of some of the most popular professors on campus,” Kelts said. “It’s faculty who love the University and its students – those are the ones who make time for something they consider important.”

Some students and advisers said the problems with CCAS’s system stem from a disconnect between their expectations about the process.

There is no consistent definition of advising, Duff said.

“What is advising supposed to be? The expectations of the student and what the faculty feel they should be doing don’t always match up,” Duff said.

Landon Wade, the director of advising for CCAS, said advisers are not completely at fault for problems with the system. Communication between students and advisers always needs improvement.

“A student will say ‘Well no one ever told me!’ and the classic response is ‘You’re in college, you’re an adult – you should take initiative in your own education,'” Wade said.

All of the advising directors interviewed said they encountered difficulty when trying to motivate students to utilize their services beyond registration.

“We had an event for transfer students and no one showed up,” Wade said. “The philosophy of ‘if you build it, they will come’ just doesn’t apply to advising. You have to do more.”

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Jonathan Sampler, a freshman in CCAS, said advising meets his expectations.

“I came from a high school where my guidance counselor was simply there to let me know of my requirements or if anything was wrong with what I was doing,” Sampler said. “This has pretty much matched up with my experience here at GW.”

But some students expect more. Sophomore Gabrielle Kulesza said most of the time, she feels as if she is being talked to instead of guided.

“The time I have spent with (my advisers) is far from nurturing, motivating or what I want in an adviser,” Kulesza said.

Sophomore Katie Ross said she had a “terrible” experience during her freshman year. As a new student, Ross expected her adviser to remind her of deadlines and to alert her of registration requirements, she said. Instead, Ross’ adviser only notified her of a hold on her account the day before registration began.

“I, of course, did not understand what a hold was or how I would even go about checking it, so I called him up the next day, hoping that I could get it all straightened out before registration,” Ross said. “Of course, he did not answer his phone.”

Ross said she e-mailed and called her adviser several times, but never received a response.

“I watched all day as classes I needed slipped away, and finally resolved to go into the Columbian College dean’s office and essentially beg for them to remove my hold, which they eventually did,” Ross said.

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Nathan Brill, the chairman of the SA’s committee on academic affairs, said he knew advising at GW was a problem because he often heard students discussing their woes.

So Brill and his committee surveyed more than 1,600 students in all five of the University’s undergraduate schools. The committee’s research concluded that while some schools, including the School of Business, got mainly positive feedback, CCAS left the majority of its students unsatisfied.

“CCAS received some of the lowest scores and most negative comments,” according to the survey, which Brill’s committee conducted during the summer of 2005.

Two of the school’s biggest problems were confusion about graduation requirements and a failure of communication between students and their advisers.

“Many incoming students are looking for a more engaging and personable relationship with their adviser so that they can get more tailored advising about courses and scheduling,” the survey stated. “Unfortunately, most (advisers) are so busy that students are rushed in, rushed out, don’t feel at all welcome and are pressured to leave without having all their questions answered.”

In response to the survey’s results, CCAS Dean Peg Barratt created an advising committee comprised of administrators, faculty, and representatives of students and parents. Duff said the committee, which has been meeting monthly for a year, is close to releasing recommendations for overhauling the advising system.

Meanwhile, SA academic affairs committee member Julie Bindelglass (U-CCAS) said she has been advocating smaller ways to alter the advising system, such as creating one-page info sheets that explain each major’s requirements.

“We need to see improvements in the big things like the student-to-adviser ratio and (advising services available at) CI,” Bindelglass said. “But we are also trying to come up with more creative ideas.”

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