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Arts & Sciences Magazine CAS News April 13, 2015

Student success often hinges on the guidance provided by academic advisors. Find out how the 19 advisors in the College help ensure our students reach their goals.

By Julie Keith
Photos by Jared Bash

With more than 7,000 undergraduate students in the College of Arts and Sciences, the task of guiding all of them through matriculation and onto graduation is not easy. In fact, it takes 19 full-time staff, who on average work with almost 400 students each. Advisors in the College juggle many tasks and collaborate closely with a host of other people on campus to shepherd students through their prerequisites, degree requirements, curriculum decisions, preparations for graduate school (including tests like the GRE, MCAT, and LSAT), and even applications for scholarships and professional development opportunities. And they do so willingly, enthusiastically, and with a sense of service to the students and to UAB.

CAS AdvisingMeet the Advisors: As shown, from top row, left to right, with their areas of speciality:
First row: Jamie Grimes – Chemistry; Brittany Saylor – Foreign Languages/Social Sciences; Benjamin Cooper – Biology; John Faulkner – Computer and Information Sciences; Deborah Littleton, Program Director – International Studies, Social Sciences, Juniors and Seniors; Tyna Adams* - Biology
Second row: Brigette Weatherby – Arts and Humanities, Juniors and Seniors; Adam Roderick – Liberal Arts/Health-Related Programs; Delia Lewis, Program Manager – Pre-Health; Whitney Woodard – Psychology/Neuroscience; Charity Costa-Reese – Biology; Rachel Davis – Health-Related Programs, Pre-Nursing
Third row: Andrew Meythaler – Liberal Arts/Health Related Programs; Tisha Morrissey – Health-Related Programs, Pre-Nursing; Kip Hubbard – Social Work, Social Sciences, Freshmen and Sophomores; Gary Applewhite – Physics and Psychology; Kassie Doggett – Arts and Humanities, Freshmen, Sophomores and Juniors; David Sellers – Arts and Humanities, Freshmen, Sophomores and Juniors
Not pictured: Kim Schnormeier; Cheryl Moser – Pre–Health
*Tyna Adams was recently recognized as the New Advisor recipient of the UAB Outstanding Advising Award

We wanted to know what makes a good advisor, and how they help students on a daily basis, as well as over the course of many years. We talked to Prof. Kimberly Schnormeier, Associate Dean for Academic Advising; Delia Lewis, Program Manager Pre-Health Advising; and Deborah Littleton, Program Director, to find out what makes CAS Advising tick.

What was the vision for Advising when the College of Arts & Sciences formed?

Kim Schnormeier: CAS Advising provides academic advising to students seeking degrees from 19 different departments, interdisciplinary programs within the College, undeclared students, and those students who intend to apply to professional programs, such as Nursing. We also offer advising services to students planning to apply to medical, dental, or optometry schools. Combining advising for all of these Arts & Sciences students under one umbrella has provided consistency in advising across disciplines and more interaction between advisors. And having the majority of advisors in one central location has made it easier for students and strengthened our profile on campus.

How has that vision changed or evolved?

Kim: While our primary focus will always be on helping students develop educational plans, set goals, and choose appropriate courses so that they can graduate on time, we are spending more time doing outreach to students who may be at-risk of leaving school or not graduating. This includes students who are passing their classes, but may not have a major, or students who are struggling in their chosen major. Advisors work with these students to determine what may be a good path for them, based on their past successes and specific interests. UAB uses a platform from the Educational Advisory Board called the Student Success Collaborative, which is a predictive tool that assists advisors in targeting specific groups of students for targeted outreach. Reducing advisor loads by rebalancing assignments and increasing the number of advisors in our office has allowed advisors more time to engage in this type of outreach, which is often called “intrusive advising.”

Advisors and students have access to more technological tools than in the past.  When the Graduation Planning System (GPS) was first introduced a couple of years ago, there was a concern that students wouldn’t need to see their advisor because they could see their progress in GPS.  In fact, the opposite has been true, as students will spot areas of concern in GPS and want to discuss them with their advisor.

What are you accomplishing every day with individual students?

Kim: Advising is a collaborative partnership between the student and the advisor, ultimately it is up to the student to make the decisions, based on the options laid out by the advisor. Each day is filled with successes big and small, and sometimes failures, too.

How do you work with faculty advisors within the departments?

Deborah Littleton: Each department is unique in how active they are in advising.  We have some departments that have faculty advising for all of their students while we have some departments that have a faculty advisor who helps discuss career and graduate school options. We work very well with the faculty advisors and encourage our students to seek guidance from their faculty advisors.

Kim: That’s right. Faculty advisors are able to focus on major requirements, internship opportunities, and often serve in a mentor capacity, because they know the academic advisors will advise students on core requirements, time to graduation, etc. Academic advisors will sometimes do on-site advising days for departments that are not housed in Heritage Hall. As with students, it is a collaborative relationship.

Delia Lewis

“Most of the Advisors I know are lovers of learning, and are nurturing personalities.”

— Delia Lewis
Delia Lewis:
I often speak to faculty in the BCPM (Biology, Chemistry, Physics, and Math) departments, and sometimes with faculty from BMD (Biomedical Sciences), BME (Biomedical Engineering), and Neuroscience. Sometimes a student requests a letter of evaluation from one of these faculty members as part of their application process for admittance to professional school (medical, dental, optometry, etc.). In addition, I often consult with these faculty about issues related to changes in professional exams (such as the 2015 revisions to the MCAT), admissions requirements for professional schools, and changes in curriculum of degrees offered that funnel into ‘pre-health’/pre-professional programs.

What are some of the challenges you face?

Kim: Time is always a factor. Advisors teach our First Year Experience (FYE) courses and participate in recruitment events and New Student Orientation on top of daily appointments. Drop/add periods and assigned time registration windows always mean full calendars and very busy days for our advisors. We also have to keep up with changes to curricula and academic policies.

Delia: And certain times of the year are busier than others. For example, the application cycle for professional schools begins in January, and I balance my time from then until about May meeting with students and gathering needed documents to start their application process. The cycle really gains steam around June, when many of the application/upload service websites open their application portals to students and students take their pre-professional exams and begin to receive their scores. June and July are spent conducting composite interviews for students and gathering final documents for their file, and the late summer and early fall are focused on completing letters for students and meeting application deadlines.

Kim: And of course it is always challenging when an advisor has to deliver news to a student that they do not want to hear, such as when they aren’t achieving the GPA needed to get into their chosen program. In those instances, advisors will provide options to the student on how they might improve their performance (referrals to the UASC, employment of the forgiveness policy) or other major/career paths they may want to consider.

From your perspective, what are some of the issues we face in higher education in 2015? How are UAB students different from, or similar to, students in other places taking the same steps toward graduation?

Kim: Like all universities, but particularly state universities, we have seen an increased emphasis on retention and graduation. In advising, this means learning how to balance the push for better numbers with what is best for each individual student. Advisors develop relationships with students and they know that each student is unique, with their own set of challenges. They see the faces and hear the stories behind the numbers.

Delia: Two of the issues I see my pre-health students facing in 2015 are inclusion and regard for new, interdisciplinary degree programs by professional school admission committees, and the frequent need for students to take extra time (or a ‘gap year’) after graduation to improve their competitiveness as a pre-health applicant due to lower-than-ideal GPA, or a lack of experiential learning, service, or leadership opportunities. The need for such extra preparation is evident in the increasing number of post-baccalaureate, non-degree programs offered at numerous universities nationwide as applicant pools grow larger and more competitive.

Kim: Overall, UAB students are no different than students anywhere else, though we do see more first-generation college students. And of course, our student population is one of the most diverse in the country, so having understanding and cultural sensitivity is important.

What do you wish people on campus knew about CAS Advising?

Deborah: We are here to help students succeed whether that means being a cheerleader at times, a shoulder to cry on, a point person for questions, a resource for all things UAB. And we are very active in recruiting new students whether that be through the numerous UAB Days, Veteran’s Day or President’s Day events or seeing VIP students who come to visit campus. We are responsible for meeting with incoming students at all of the new student orientations and transfer orientations. We work with students teaching them about study skills, time management, helping them get acclimated to college life; we bring in different entities across campus to let students know resources are available to help them throughout their college career.

Kim: I see how dedicated our advisors are and how hard they work to help students succeed. They are so much more than “course planners.” They are there for our students from recruitment, to New Student Orientation, to that scary first semester and on through graduation. Many are involved on campus in other ways, such as teaching workshops in the UASC, involvement with Safe Zone, or serving on the Benevolent Fund Council. They work hard and maintain patience, compassion and good cheer, even during the busiest times. Our advisors are a great team!

What do you wish people outside of campus knew?

Deborah Littleton

“Advisors are detail-oriented, good listeners, empathetic, caring, encouraging, genuine, and curious.”

— Deborah Littleton
Deborah: Our academic advising staff has been recognized nationally over the past 17 years for providing outstanding academic advising to our students through the National Academic Advising Association (NACADA), with advisors winning an Outstanding Advising Award or Outstanding Advising Award—Certificate of Merit.

Delia: I wish that more people knew how exceptional our student body is. I have the honor of working with some of the brightest, most considerate, diverse, intelligent, and interesting students on a daily basis.

What makes someone want to be an Advisor? What kinds of things do they do well that draw them to the job and make them successful?

Deborah: A passion to help others. I think advisors possess a friendly personality, are detail-oriented, good listeners, empathetic, caring, encouraging, genuine, and curious. All of these traits help an advisor be successful in working with students.

Delia: I agree. I think advisors are often people who take joy in helping others realize their potential, by providing resources or information, compassion, sometimes firm guidance, or simply helping a student keep things in perspective. Most of the good advisors I know are lovers of learning, and are nurturing personalities who thrive by helping others do the same.

Kim: It may surprise people to know that many of our advisors have some type of counseling background, while others have education degrees or a student life background.

When do you know you’ve succeeded?

Delia: I relish the moments when my students gleefully inform me that they have been accepted to one or more professional programs of their choice. It is an honor to witness their years of discipline and hard work pay off in a major milestone and ‘next step’ in their path as a future health care provider.

Kim: Graduation time is always a time when there is a feeling of great accomplishment, when you see students walking across the stage who faced obstacles, challenges, and adversity to reach that goal. Knowing that advisors played a part in getting them up on that stage is one of the great rewards of the job.

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