Associate Professor Alison Chapman, Ph.D., read the email twice before it sank in that she had received the National Academic Advising Association’s award for outstanding faculty advising.
Advising was part of Chapman’s role as director of undergraduate studies in the Department of English, and earlier this year she received the same award within UAB. Now, after six years, she is stepping down as director and away from advising with a new appreciation for students’ struggles.
“I [was not] an advisor in the sense that I met with all — or even most — students on a regular basis to talk over their progress,” Chapman said. “Instead, I have been the fix-it person to go to when problems came up. This has honestly been one of the most gratifying parts of my job.”
Chapman said she once had a student burst into tears of relief when she told the student she could help her solve a problem.
“It turned out that I was like the fifth office she had visited — with each person directing her to someone else,” Chapman said. “It taught me that the university can be hard to navigate and that it’s intimidating and frustrating for students when they have to hunt to get problems solved.”
Chapman said advising helped her see the struggles many students face. Chapman said she was fortunate that her family could afford her college education, which is not the case for many UAB students.
“I see UAB students struggling to balance jobs and school — and sometimes other pressures such as parenting commitments, commuting, health issues and more,” Chapman said. “It’s remarkable how successful so many are able to be under challenging circumstances, and the contrast between the economic privilege I had — one I didn’t appreciate sufficiently at the time — and the lack of privilege many UAB students have is one of my main motivators as a teacher and informal adviser.”
When compiling the application information for the NAAA award, Chapman had to ask former students to write letters of recommendation, which she said was one of the most enjoyable aspects of the application process.
“I am always hesitant to impose on students — unless they are in my class, then imposing on them is my job — but I was really touched by the willingness of these folks to help me out,” Chapman said. “As a faculty member, we spend most of our professional lives thinking that we are the ones who help students, so it was instructive and moving to have the tables turned.”
Drawn to help
Chapman also is motivated through her work with UAB’s long-running lecture series, which brings faculty to teach at Donaldson Correctional Facility, a maximum-security men's prison in northwest Jefferson County. The all-volunteer program has been in place for 24 years, with Chapman at the helm since 2008.
“Running the lecture series and teaching at Donaldson has made me a better teacher and human being,” Chapman said. “Besides, when UAB students grouse about a reading assignment, it’s nice to be able to say, ‘I know 25 inmates north of here who read this stuff for fun.’ I realize that this is a version of my mother telling young me that ‘starving children across the globe would love those peas,’ but it’s also true.”
Chapman, who taught a monthly literature class for five years, said she continues to manage the lecture series because she’s drawn to help.
“I am very committed to the idea that we can judge a society not by how it treats its most productive citizens but by how it treats those who are least productive — the elderly, disabled and those who are institutionalized,” Chapman said. “In my case, the least productive members of society that I feel drawn to help are those generally serving life sentences in a maximum-security prison.”