A new effort to connect underclassmen and upperclassmen within academic departments is facing implicit opposition by faculty members.
A Yale College Council initiative seeks to provide underclassmen with more information about their prospective majors, according to the organization’s members. The program invites upperclassmen to apply to be departmental ambassadors for their selected areas of study. Ambassadors will answer younger students’ questions about anything from major requirements to comparing classes in the department. According to the YCC’s original program proposal, the initiative aims to fill a perceived hole in underclassmen’s academic knowledge.
However, none of the seven directors of undergraduate studies interviewed have implemented the program or taken any steps to advertise its existence.
“[According to a YCC survey done last winter,] less than a quarter of students were definitely confident that they were fully informed about what classes to take for their prospective major,” said David Lawrence ’15, YCC academics director. “The goal for this program is to fill in that gap.”
The initiative was first proposed in Jan. 2013 and approved by the administration at a faculty meeting this past spring, Lawrence said. Each department’s participation in the initiative is optional and will be decided by its DUS.
However, several DUS’s interviewed said they had not heard of the program. Of those who had, roughly half said they had not done anything with the initiative, and the rest were interested in participating but have not fleshed out any details.
Information about the new program was included in the 2014-’15 DUS handbook and announced at a faculty meeting, Lawrence said.
Still, because the initiative was largely left up each department’s DUS, Lawrence said he is not surprised that DUS knowledge is “kind of a mixed bag.”
While chemistry DUS Patrick Vaccaro said he is enthusiastic about the idea, Michael Koelle, DUS of molecular biophysics and biochemistry, said his department has already tried to provide multiple advising resources. Koelle added that he is worried underclassmen might turn to student ambassadors instead of faculty and risk receiving inaccurate information.
“The department has faculty advisers and DUS’s who are the original source of the information, and they’re very happy to meet with students,” he said. “I think it’s great if students meet with juniors or seniors to get advice, but I wouldn’t want them to do that instead of meeting with faculty academic advisers. I’d like it to be an additional element, a way of steering students to also see a professor.”
Lawrence conceded that DUS’s will probably have to institute some kind of “vetting process” to ensure that ambassadors are giving out the right information, but defended the value of having student voices in addition to faculty advisors.
Several students interviewed echoed this opinion.
Austin Long ’15, who said he intends to apply to be a political science ambassador, said students might feel intimidated approaching a DUS as a freshman or sophomore, but upperclassmen may be more approachable.
According to Korn Lapprathana ’15, students can also provide more honest feedback.
“It doesn’t really make sense to ask professors ‘Is your major good?’ because of course they’re going to say yes,” Lapprathana said.
For Matthew Hennessy ’17, though, simply having another student to answer questions does not guarantee the information will be useful. When it comes to academic advising, he said, not just anyone will do. A useful mentor must know what the student is interested in, what is challenging for them and what they think is worth their time.
If that prior knowledge does not exist, he added, “You might as well just put a bunch of advice on a webpage for freshmen to look at.”
Such webpages do exist, on each department’s website. All students interviewed said they felt adequately knowledgeable about their majors’ requirements because all the information is online.
For departments with more requirements, such as engineering, there are even four-year plans already laid out, said Claire Mallon ’17.
Even so, many students still do not feel properly informed. The same YCC survey found that 29 percent of students were “probably not” or “definitely not” adequately informed about what series of classes they should take to fulfill their majors’ requirements. Although resources do exist, Koelle acknowledged, sometimes freshmen do not think to seek them out.
“The DUS system is better designed to cater to those already in the major,” political science DUS David Simon said in an email. “It is certainly true that underclassmen considering majors, on the one hand, and juniors and seniors in the major, on the other hand, have very different needs in terms of advising. I think the departmental ambassador program has the potential to help out with the needs of underclassmen.”
The YCC survey polled 1,602 students, evenly distributed by year and field of study.