Problems arise with advising for freshmen

Just five days after moving all her possessions into her room on Old Campus, Carrie Albert ’11 had to confront what may have felt like one of the most difficult decisions of her life: choosing her courses. The day before classes started, she — along with every other freshman — was introduced to a professor who was supposed to be one of her primary guides to academic life at Yale.

But whether these freshman faculty advisers can provide the appropriate guidance to anxious freshmen remains to be seen.

In its current state, the University’s freshman advising system is not living up to its potential, Dean of Freshmen George Levesque said.

“As Yale, we should be doing this better,” he said.

Like most universities, Yale has long had a distinct freshman advising program to address the specific needs of the youngest students. But while administrators have focused more on the program in recent years, the system — which is organized within the residential college system — still comes under fire from across the University.

Administrators said the cause for the discontent on campus may be that students do not always see eye to eye with them on what the overall goal of freshman advising should be — whether to counsel students in their areas of interest or to give them more general information about how to make the most of the educational experience at Yale.

Yale’s Status Quo

Students are often frustrated when they are assigned advisers who are not familiar with the departments they are most interested in, said Levesque, whose office is responsible for the University’s freshman advising program. But one overarching goal of first-year advising is to avoid pigeonholing freshmen into one specific major or department, he said.

Yale College Dean Peter Salovey said rather than to explain rules, requirements and course selection, freshman advising at Yale is designed to introduce new students to a faculty member from whom they can receive general pre-major advising and hopefully develop a meaningful relationship.

“As presently constructed, [the program’s goal is] to encourage freshmen in their opening days to think about big issues — the purpose of a college education and how to get the most out of Yale,” Salovey said.

But the program does not always deliver on that promise, Salovey acknowledged. Scheduling advising earlier in the Camp Yale schedule and encouraging faculty to get more involved in students’ lives could make the program more effective, he said.

Levesque said he thinks the strength of Yale’s program lies in its interaction with the residential college system. The master and dean of each college ask about 30 fellows — most of whom are junior or senior faculty members — to volunteer their time to advise freshmen, he said, and based on who agrees to join the program, students are distributed among the advisers.

But since the academic interests of the advisers in each college most often do not correspond exactly with those of the new students, he said, college-centric advising is also likely a cause of many students’ complaints.

“The strength of our residential college system is not playing out as well as it should when it comes to freshman advising,” Levesque said.

To offset the college-based faculty advisers, Levesque said the University organizes an academic fair during Opening Days when faculty members from most academic departments are available to answer students’ questions. And on the day before classes begin during the fall semester, colleges host advising nights during which students meet and speak with their individual advisers and — in some colleges — are encouraged to ask questions of other advisers with whom they might share academic interests. Plus, he said, college deans and freshman counselors are always available to answer students’ individual questions.

Albert said that while the advising night in Davenport College was initially overwhelming, when they broke up into small groups, her adviser took Albert and the other advisees to her house to talk. Albert had similar, though not identical, academic interests as her adviser, but she said her freshman counselors had helped her so much in selecting courses that she did not have many questions come advising night.

“I think it would probably be more helpful if the adviser were a professor of what you’re interested in, because then you could ask questions about classes for your major,” Albert said.

University Printer John Gambell, a fellow of Jonathan Edwards College who has served as a freshman adviser in the past, said that although he is familiar with the technicalities of course selection, his advice was most constructive to those with an interest in studio art or the humanities because of his own academic background.

“Though we often ended up discussing broader issues, students generally approached me with fairly specific questions, and most often in the context of needing my signature on a course schedule,” Gambell said in an e-mail.

And some freshmen said they had extremely positive experiences with their advisers. Ben Alter ’11 said his dean matched him with a history professor who Alter said was capable of answering broad as well as detailed questions about the major and his course selection. He said he met with his adviser several times during shopping period and received thorough responses to e-mailed questions about how to prioritize his classes.

Alter said many of his friends in Davenport were also pleased that the dean matched them so carefully with a faculty member. But Alter’s adviser also told him that he was the professor’s first advisee to be interested in history.

Alter’s only complaint with the advising night was that he thought it was hosted too late to be of optimal use to new students.

“I think they should have done it a couple of days before the night before classes,” Alter said. “It takes a lot of work to decide what classes you’re going to be shopping and you’d be better off with the advice a couple days before.”

Making a switch

One measure of the success of the freshman advising program might be the number of sophomores who keep their freshman advisers for a second year: just 15.4 percent last year. Several sophomores said they were eager to change advisers when they had the chance, looking for a professor whom they know better or who has more similar academic interests.

But while Levesque said he does think there are advantages to continuity in advising, he said many freshmen make the switch even when they have had positive experiences with their previous advisers, either because they develop relationships with another faculty member or because their freshman advisers go on leave. The percentage of students who keep their original adviser is therefore hard to interpret, he said.

“Students keep advisers for good, bad and neutral reasons, and students change advisers for good, bad, and neutral reasons,” Levesque said. “I believe we need to look at other factors to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of our system.”

Jacob Abolafia ’10 said he simply did not interact with his adviser beyond getting his course schedule signed. When he had questions about his class selection, he said he asked his Directed Studies professors or freshman counselors.

“He didn’t really know about my classes; I didn’t really know about his classes,” Abolafia said.

Come sophomore year, Abolafia switched to a new faculty adviser.

Graduate School Dean Jon Butler, who teaches the popular freshman seminar “The Rise of Religion in Modern America,” said that every year, many of the students he teaches during the fall semester request that he become their sophomore adviser. Developing the freshman seminar program is therefore an excellent way to ensure that students forge relationships with faculty members, he said.

“I think freshman advising can be tied to good advising in subsequent semesters, precisely because the faculty members get to know them quite well,” Butler said.

Beyond Yale: Pre-term, Professional and Peer Advising

Harvard College Dean of Freshmen Thomas Dingman said his university’s advising program for freshmen is “vastly stronger” than it has been in the recent past because of added personnel and a more rigorous training process. Harvard freshmen live in entryways with their peers and are assigned a proctor — either a graduate student or another staff member — who oversees all of the students’ adjustments to college, beyond just academics.

The unique aspect of Harvard’s system, Dingman said, is that every freshman is also assigned a peer adviser, a program which was instituted based on student feedback. He said the program has been extremely successful because the peer advisers are well-trained, but also have the advantage of being able to relate more closely with the freshman experience.

“[Students] told us other students are where they get advice,” Dingman said. “[So we] created this position and it drew a lot of interest.”

If students are fairly certain about their majors, they may be matched with faculty members in specific departments, while other students are paired with advisers with common backgrounds or interests, like hometown or taste in music.

But Dingman said experience has shown him that oftentimes, the matches that are made most thoughtfully and carefully are not necessarily the ones that most benefit the students. In the future, he said he thinks Harvard should pair faculty members with students who are interested in their general area of expertise, rather than their specific department — humanities in general rather than art history, for example.

“It can backfire when students are afraid to reject the major of their adviser,” he said. “We’re thinking of making the umbrella wider.”

In addition to the proctor and peer adviser, some freshmen are also assigned to one of about 400 senior staff or faculty members who serves as academic advisers. Dingman said this is the branch of Harvard’s advising program that currently has the most potential for growth. As at Yale, Harvard faculty members are asked to volunteer to become advisers, which makes it difficult to recruit a large number, he said.

At Stanford University, students are matched with a faculty adviser based on academic interests as well as a peer mentor. Freshmen are also assigned to a professional adviser from the Office of Undergraduate Advising and Research.

Genevieve Williams, a Stanford sophomore, said that during her freshman year she was paired with a faculty adviser and a group of students who were all pre-med, even though she is not interested in becoming a doctor. Because she could not ask her adviser specific questions about her major, she relied primarily on her resident peer adviser when she had questions. She said that while there are freshmen who do utilize the professional advising resources, she thinks most tend to look to their faculty advisers and peer mentors first.

While Yale, Harvard and Stanford all recruit volunteers to be advisers, at Amherst College — a Massachusetts liberal arts college with about 1,600 students — all tenured and tenure-track faculty members are required to serve as advisers, Dean of Students Ben Lieber said.

Lieber said that until about two years ago, the biggest student complaint about advising at Amherst was that students are required to preregister for courses before ever meeting with an adviser. As a result, about 70 faculty volunteers offered to come to campus during freshman orientation in order to help students choose their classes and set their schedules. These advisers remain with the students until the end of the drop/add period, when the freshmen are assigned a new faculty member — their permanent pre-major adviser, who remains with them until they declare their major.

“We do try to match by interest,” Lieber said. “[And] when possible, we try to make the adviser someone who will teach one of [the students’] courses first semester.”

As at every other college, Lieber said the fundamental problem with advising at Amherst is that not all faculty members are equally skilled at advising. Still, Lieber said that because the faculty have always been required to serve as advisers, it has become a fundamental part of the Amherst culture. This is vital in a college where students have so much flexibility with their schedules, he said.

“[Amherst has] no distribution requirements so a lot rests on the advising system,” he said. “Faculty really believe that it’s a crucial function for faculty to play. The majority take it quite seriously.”

Looking forward: The road ahead for Yale

Despite the flaws in the current system, Levesque said he thinks some of the discontent among Yale students could be assuaged by better clarifying the purpose of their freshman adviser as well as the best sources for specific questions about academic advising.

While some students expressed an interest in an advising center staffed by professionals, Salovey said the College made a concerted decision to stray away from that model when it came up in discussions of the Committee on Yale College Education in 2003. The CYCE’s research found that there were significant benefits to faculty involvement in advising, he said, while other schools with professional advisers still reported problems with their systems.

“Many of these schools actually looked to us with envy, so we were not persuaded that other models would necessarily be better than what we currently have,” Salovey said. “In general, I prefer models of advising that maximize interaction between faculty members and undergraduates.”

Abolafia said he thinks the key is simply in ensuring that advisers are encouraged to check in with their freshmen several times a year and to find out how their classes are going. Taking this extra interest in the lives of the advisees would definitely strengthen the program, he said.

Levesque said that while drastically revamping Yale’s advising system would be difficult, it is not out of the question.

“I think we should be able to look at creative solutions,” Levesque said. “We don’t have to do this the same way.”

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