Stanford University has always prided itself in aiding students in their quest for higher education through a unique system of residential education and advising. Although this system of residential advisers may be unique to Stanford, many students present mixed feelings on the effectiveness of the advising resources provided to them.
The University emphasizes that the freshman’s primary source of information, the pre-major adviser, will help the student think about the broad purpose of their undergraduate years and how to make the most of their time at Stanford. Providing this broad outlook on education proves difficult, for as Elizabeth Rasmussen ‘12 recalls, her adviser’s area of expertise did not coincide with areas that she planned to study. “My adviser was with the History department, which I had indicated as an area of interest, but it wasn’t necessarily an area that I wanted to pursue,” Rasmussen explains.
Rasmussen and many others cite the difficulty in being matched with a single adviser. During a time when young students are still deciding on a course of study, assignment to an adviser in one specific field proves limiting, for many students value multiple viewpoints during their time of academic exploration. Freshman adviser Tania Mitchell agrees, stating that advising a student with interests different from her own proves to be a challenge. But a good adviser, she feels, can always introduce a student to other faculty members who can more appropriately address the student’s needs.
Additional faculty members available to lend advice include the Academic Director, who should be able to provide information on General Education Requirements and exploring majors. Of those who met with their Academic Directors, many students, like Nicole Rodriguez ‘12, simply made the visit as a formality for a required signature on a university form. “I never met with my Academic Director because I could find answers to my questions about topics like course requirements online,” Rodriguez states. She, like many others, felt that waiting to see the Academic Director was never valuable unless it was required.
With dorm complexes like Wilbur and Stern being converted to all-freshman housing for the 09-10 school year, residential education offices will have to put forth more effort to maintain the value of Academic Directors within the dorm. Even with the challenge of addressing the needs of nearly six hundred freshmen, Wilbur staff seemed optimistic about their ability to help incoming frosh take advantage of the advising system. The University feels that the addition of one more Academic Director to Wilbur’s staff will balance the greater number of students in need of assistance. Even though this addition will keep the ratio of students to Academic Directors relatively equal to previous years, no additional changes to the advising system have been put into place. Wilbur does plan to welcome frosh throughout the fall quarter with social gatherings where students can meet the Academic Directors and learn about what advising within the dorm has to offer.
Despite enthusiastic efforts from advisers and university staff alike, when students were asked to reflect on advising during their freshman year, many felt that their pre-major advisers and Academic Directors offered less assistance than what their Head Peer Academic Counselors were able to provide. “I loved talking to my HPAC,” Katherine Chen ’12 states. “It was like getting advice from a well-informed friend.” Students like Chen felt that their HPAC was the best source of knowledge; the viewpoint of a dorm staff member who had lived through the freshman experience proved most useful throughout their transition to life at Stanford. Additionally, conversations with HPACs are often informal, which led many students to frequent their HPAC’s room to casually discuss classes as opposed to scheduling meetings with their advisers.
Unfortunately, with Stanford having to balance the budget in this time of economic downturn, the positions of Peer Mentor and Head Peer Academic Counselor, two resources deemed most useful by many students, have been eliminated in order to provide funding for more pressing resources. In a letter to the Stanford community, John Bravman stated that the decision to discontinue these two programs reflects the “desire to eliminate program costs before having to consider eliminating professional academic staff.” He also acknowledges that advising has been a challenge for many years, but he remains confident that Academic Directors will provide valuable support to students, even in the absence of the HPAC program.
Despite Bravman’s confidence, many feel that the elimination of the HPAC represents an incalculable loss. Peter Tu ’10, a former HPAC in Junipero, not only expressed disappointment over the loss of a position he loved, but also sympathy for the incoming freshman who will be unable to take advantage of a great resource. Having taken the classes that incoming freshman inquire about and having been trained in areas like university education requirements, Tu feels that the HPAC’s unique perspective of both student and staff member is an indispensable tool for first-year students seeking advice.
During this time when the Stanford community shows great concern for the future of advising, the ASSU remains alert and responsive to the needs of students. According to Senate Chair, Varun Sivaram, the ASSU is alarmed by the elimination of nearly all peer advising resources, and in response to these changes, it plans to incorporate graduate student mentorship on a volunteer basis through a web-based forum application. In addition to maintaining the University’s diversity of advising resources through this mentorship program, the ASSU also supports an advising review committee that would utilize student input to gauge the effectiveness of current advising endeavors.
Regardless of the imperfections that may exist in the current system of advising, most agree that problems with advising occur during the freshman year because a course of study has not yet been fixed. The expanse of courses and majors seems too broad for a single adviser to manage and too vast for a student to navigate alone. Yet once the student decides on their plan of study, major-specific advising proves to be “a breath of fresh air,” Carolina Zubiri explains after her first Human Biology advising appointment.
Perhaps the decision of what specified course of study to take will remain a struggle for students to figure out on their own. Nonetheless, Stanford will continue to provide advisers who, regardless of their ability to help, can reassure students that they are not alone during their undergraduate years.