Hands on a table during a meeting

Academic Advisers Help Students Traverse St. Thomas Terrain

Entering college can feel like traversing into uncharted territory. The terrain is vaguely familiar, the food a little strange and sometimes the pack too heavy. Luckily, this new territory comes ready-made with guides who are there to help students create the right map for their college journeys and beyond.

Academic advisers can be key amongst those guides, easing the transitions into, through and after college, and making sure students make the most of their educational opportunities. First-year advisers help connect students to St. Thomas and find their place within it while major advisers provide in-depth explanations of a major’s requirements and bridge college experiences with real-world settings.

“Advising can be so much more than navigating the system,” said Mike Klein, a faculty member in Justice and Peace Studies who advises first-year students and majors. “It can be vocational discernment, even trying to figure out your purpose and vision for life, the steps you’re taking toward that dream. Of course, that’s hard to do in 20 minutes, but when we have longer conversations, I love getting into that territory.”

Connecting to resources

First-year advisers help navigate the switch from high school to higher education. They connect students with resources they might not know are available and make sure students have the necessary academic skills. Training serves as an introduction new advisers and a refresher for those returning. Done each August, the training session details graduation requirements and resources around campus.

Kanishka Chowdhury, director of the American culture and difference minor, said checking in early in the semester is important to get students the help they need earlier on.

“Most of the time, things are fine,” Chowdhury said. “But if you don’t have the meeting … someone might fall through the cracks. Mid-October, it’s too late. … A little conversation can really straighten things out.”

He added that common problems for some first-year students are study habits, knowing how to communicate with professors and adjusting to residential life on campus. In that regard, the resources often recommended to students are the Office of Academic Counseling and Support, the Center for Writing, the Mathematics Resource Center and residential advisers.

Even when academic advisers are helping with a problem, they often are also making sure the student is building skills to help themselves in the future. Melissa Loe, associate chair and associate professor in the Mathematics Department, said when she helps her first-year advisees, she’s not just solving problems for them.

“I don’t necessarily go behind the scenes and say, ‘Let me find that out for you, and I’ll get back to you.’ It’s more, ‘Well, I think you could ask these people. Shall we call them?’ ‘I’d send an email to this person and this person. Do you know how to find their email addresses?’” Loe said.

On the flip side, knowing what’s happening behind the scenes can help professors be more cognizant of what’s happening in students’ day-to-day lives.

“When you teach several classes of students, it’s easy to lose track of what the experience is for students coming straight from high school,” said Heather Shirey, associate professor of art history. “I feel like advising helps me keep that in focus as well; it helps me understand the whole life of the student, not just the performance of that student in one class.”

Learning the student

While advising is an obvious component of being an adviser, being a good listener is perhaps equally important.

“It’s a big, holistic, generic approach until we get to know them well,” Klein said. “In the first meeting, I’m hoping to hear their story – their hopes and dreams and what they’re about so that I can be a better adviser down the road.”

Getting to know the students they’re interacting with is often a vital first step for first-year advisers. (A loose term, as students typically stick with their “first-year adviser” until they declare a major, which is usually sometime in sophomore year.) Once an adviser understands a student’s driving forces and interests, they’re in a position to make recommendations where a student might find a space to belong. Part of that is highlighting the sheer number of choices students have for exploring their sense of self, Shirey said.

“The job of the adviser is not to limit them,” Shirey said. “It’s such a great time for exploration and what classes just sound really interesting. … Sometimes students come in and they’ll say things like, ‘Well, I took three semesters of French, but I’ve always wanted to learn Italian. But I already have the French, so I just have to stick with the French.’ This is the time to [explore].”

“I think there’s a lot of fear that,'I won’t graduate in four years if try out different areas of interest.' But I try to emphasize there are a lot of opportunities like summer courses, J-Term, study abroad,” Chowdhury said. “I really try to get them to enjoy their time here and learn – learn for the sake of learning.”

Heading out into the world

Once students leave their first-year advisers they move onto a major adviser. He or she continues to ask what drives that student, but also helps put a plan into place, whether that means graduate school or a career.

“For majors, it’s much more about digging deep: into what they’re studying, into what their motivations are, what their hopes are, in order to help guide them toward resources they might not know about. Or ask some challenging and maybe directing questions that can help them focus from that big, abstract idea of what they want to do someday into the practical realities of getting to that place,” Klein said.

Chowdhury added that a major or minor adviser can be beneficial because he or she can explain why requirements are in place. As someone connected to his or her field, he or she also knows the possibilities of that field, where alumni are looking for jobs and where they’re being hired.

Chowdhury said an alum might tell him, "'The things I learned in X class is really helpful and I can understand the applications of what I learned.’ Then I can take that information and tell perspective students, ‘Hey, so-and-so is working for an environmental organization in Minnesota, and said she’s really benefited from this particular degree,’ and tell them how and why."

Klein echoed that sentiment, saying that Justice and Peace Studies has shaped their program off what they’ve heard from alumni, often bringing alumni back into the classroom and trying to network current students with alumni.

“There are times, after graduating, when students become more like friends and colleagues,” Klein said. “And that’s a very affirming, wonderful part of doing advising.”

Advice from some advisers

Many of the advisers offered the same pearl of wisdom to students on their journeys: Take ownership of your education.

“Take a few moments before the appointment to imagine what you want to get out of it. Try and reflect on your educational goals – long-term goals, but also this semester, what I need to get done,” Klein said.

“You are the one, in the end, who is going to make the important decisions. You’re the one who has to figure out what combinations work for you. What you’re passionate about, frankly," Chowdhury said. "We can’t make that decision for our students. What we can do is use the knowledge and expertise that we’ve acquired over the years of advising to support them, guide them and encourage them.”