Freshman advising disappoints many

When Elizabeth Sutton-Stone ’10 heard her name called out in the Davenport College common room along with those of the three other girls assigned to her academic adviser, she was a little surprised — and less than thrilled — to hear that she had been grouped with three of her suitemates.

Four days after moving in, Sutton-Stone, who is leaning towards majoring in English, said she had been feeling by turns vulnerable, confused and overwhelmed, and was looking forward to conferring with a faculty member who had been assigned to her based on her academic interests rather than by her suite. The girls, who have a variety of academic interests, were all assigned to history professor Jay Gitlin.

“When we went in there, I was feeling like I had nobody to tell me if I was doing the right thing,” she said. “I was concerned that no one would really notice or care enough to tell me if what I was choosing to do as far as classes was the right thing. I felt very small.”

Sutton-Stone is just one of many incoming freshmen who initially felt that Yale’s freshman academic-advising system seemed at best nonspecific and at worst completely random, with students assigned to advisers who may have limited knowledge about their areas of interest. At other schools with similar systems in place, some students said, small differences make students more likely to have a positive freshman advising experience and to remain with the same adviser throughout their college years.

In defense of Yale’s system, Dean of Freshman Affairs George Levesque said he thinks students may benefit from concentrating on the “big picture” rather than being placed immediately on a track of discussing their future plans.

“The goal of the freshman faculty advising system is to provide general advice about course selection, not to give specific information about course content or placement,” Levesque said in an e-mail. “One immediate problem is that many students come undecided or with several majors in mind. More importantly, however, we think it is unwise to focus these conversations too narrowly on preparing for a particular major.”

Despite her initial reservations, Sutton-Stone’s first meeting with her adviser was a comforting one. As she walked into Gitlin’s cozy, book-filled office and perched on the windowsill alongside her suitemates, she said she began to relax for the first time since arriving at Yale. Gitlin asked the girls how they were doing, encouraged them to talk about the difficulties they encountered with enrolling in English sections and told them about his tradition of taking his advisees to pick apples and raspberries at a local farm.

“It felt like, not only do we have someone who has an insider’s knowledge of a lot of the courses that is willing to tell us about them, but we have somebody who is eager to tell us whatever he can and help us in any way that he can,” Sutton-Stone said. “I truly felt that the great ‘Yale advising system’ was all that it’s cracked up to be.”

Yet not all freshmen share Sutton-Stone’s experience. While the Yale College Instructor’s Handbook states that each residential college dean “attempts to assign students to freshman advisers on the basis of the student’s declared academic interests,” those students assigned to advisers not in their planned field of study often struggle to find the guidance they are seeking. Even in subsequent years, different departmental policies lead to widely varying experiences; though in some departments students develop a relationship with their adviser from sophomore year onward, others do not make a connection with an adviser until the time comes for them to write their senior essays.

Valerie Steinberg ’09, who plans on majoring in East Asian studies, was assigned a professor in the History of Science and Medicine Department as her freshman adviser, and said she found him “not helpful at all.” The day after Steinberg first met with her adviser, she recalls seeing him in a hallway and observing that his greeting made it clear he had already forgotten who she was.

“I just didn’t feel like there was a lot of interest in what I was doing,” Steinberg said. “He would just nod and sign my schedule. I only met with him the three times I was required to do so.”

While faculty advisers are recruited by each residential college’s dean and master from the college fellowship, they have the option to accept or decline the offer.

“Faculty are very busy,” Levesque said. “They agree to be an adviser because they want to help freshmen and serve the college.”

Even when students happen to be assigned an adviser who may have expertise in the area they hope to major in, Yalies say it is rare to connect with a freshman adviser in a way that enables students to glean real advice or support from the process.

While Matt Huttner ’07 was initially paired with an adviser in his planned area of study, physics, he said he received relatively little guidance from the professor. Huttner, who is now an East Asian studies major, met with his adviser only when required to during his freshman year, and chose a new adviser for his sophomore year.

While other Ivies have similar academic advising systems in place, each school varies with respect to how students are matched to faculty members and how likely they are to keep their advisers throughout college. In 2003, the Committee on Yale College Education examined the freshman advising system and compared it to models at universities across the country.

Levesque pointed to Yale’s residential college system as one advantage the University has over its peer institutions in surrounding freshmen with a supportive community, but acknowledged, “We could still do better.”

At Princeton, students are assigned an adviser based on a preferences form they fill out during the summer before their freshman year. They are also assigned a peer adviser who is an upperclassman concentrating in the freshman’s stated area of interest. Princeton freshman Andrew Segal said he found his peer adviser to be a more helpful resource when it came to questions about specific classes.

“[My adviser] knows a lot about the department I am looking to major in,” Segal said. “I’m looking to be a Spanish major, and my academic adviser is from Madrid. But basically, the student is supposed to know the requirements and come up with a good list of classes. The adviser really just gives us a nod, yes or no.”

Segal also said that while it does happen occasionally, it is relatively rare for Princeton freshmen to change counselors after their first year.

At the University of Pennsylvania, incoming freshmen are assigned advisers during the summer and correspond with them before arriving at school to discuss what subjects they are thinking of taking. Once they begin the school year, they are placed on a registration hold for their classes until they have met with their advisers in person. While Penn does attempt to match students with advisers according to their professed academic goals, Allison Karic, a sophomore at Penn who now plans to major in psychology or cognitive science, was randomly assigned to a professor in Penn’s East Asian studies department.

“I put ‘undecided’ initially and so they had nothing to work with, which was fine last year,” Karic said. “But now, sophomore year, I know what I want to do, and [my adviser] doesn’t really have that much knowledge of what I want to study. But that really varies from person to person.”

Still, some argue that being assigned a faculty member who is not selected according to a student’s academic background may be a benefit rather than a drawback.

While he admits that he may not be well-versed in the details about every department in which his non-history students might be interested, Gitlin said he feels that the system, as it is, offers a richer experience than one that would assign students strictly to someone from the department of their planned major.

“Probably I would be more useful if I were given only students who were interested in history,” he said. “But I’m happy to get to know a mix of kids. It’s a blend, and I think it’s good that way. And honestly, as a freshman, who knows what you’re going to major in?”

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