“They come to the University as kids, and they leave as adults.”
So says Frank Yoder, one of 30 advisers with the University’s Academic Advising Center.
“Between August and December, they change in every way, shape, and form,” says Yoder, who’s been an Iowa adviser for the past 12 years. “They probably change as quickly intellectually and emotionally as any time in their lives.”
Watching students mature is one of the great pleasures of the job for Yoder, and he and the other advisers are here to help guide the process.
That guidance includes helping solve issues that might seem mundane to parents and advisers, but can feel like real crises to students.
“It’s important to take their problems seriously, because to them it’s a big deal, ” Yoder says. “We provide them with information, but sometimes reassurance is just as important.”
Their problems can range from fretting that a class is too difficult to worrying about writing a college research paper to feeling homesick. While Yoder and his colleagues can calm many student concerns, they also steer students to campus offices with more expertise in a particular area.
“If a student has money woes, I will help them get in touch with a financial aid counselor in Calvin Hall,” says Julie Claus, who has been an academic adviser for 15 years. “For some personal problems, I’ll direct them to the University Counseling Service. If they’re experiencing test anxiety, I remind them that a counseling service appointment is appropriate for academic situations as well as for personal ones.”
Students (and their parents) first encounter academic advisers during summer Orientation. The University system can seem overwhelming to incoming students and their families, and advisers help by sharing information about academic opportunities, requirements, and expectations. They then meet with students to set up their schedules for the first semester.
“The University is a big place with a lot of people, and students have to learn to handle massive amounts of information,” Claus says. “We’re here to help students create a vision for their education.”
Once school starts, academic advisers touch base with students early in the semester.
“The first six weeks are critical for students,” says Pat Folsom, director of the center. “Literature on retaining students indicates that it’s the time period that makes the biggest difference.”
To ensure contact during those important early days, all first-year and transfer students are invited to small group sessions during the first three weeks of classes. The meetings serve several functions.
“It’s an opportunity for students to see where we’re located, so they know where to come for help,” Yoder says. “We make the session informal, friendly, and welcoming, so that they feel good about returning if they have a question or need help later in the semester.”
Discussion at these sessions can range from how to add or drop a course to figuring out which Cambus (the University’s free bus system) travels where.
“I get a lot of people asking questions after the session, too,” Yoder says. “Students want to know when they can expect their financial aid check to arrive, or what to do when they can’t find a book they need at the bookstore. Some of their questions can be answered right then, but for more complicated issues, I encourage them to make an appointment.”
Asking for help is often difficult for first-year students.
“Many of these kids were ‘super-star seniors,’ who were on top of their game in high school,” Claus says. “I remind students that the University is not the same as high school, and often use the phrase, ‘Think back to how you felt in ninth grade.’”
To help students make adjustments, academic advisers provide information and ideas, but making use of these is up to students.
“Figuring out how to use the University’s resources to get a problem solved is a step to success,” Yoder says. “Once students have learned to ask questions and gotten a useful response, they’re more likely to do it again.”
Academic advisers schedule two more appointments with students during the first semester. After the group sessions, advisers meet one-on-one with each student for 30 minutes in late October and early November. At these sessions, advisers learn how the student is adjusting, both academically and socially, and discuss student concerns. One worry for many first-year students is declaring a major.
“When a student comes in and says, ‘I don’t know what I want to major in,’ I often ask them if they know what they don’t want, and they nearly always do, which helps narrow the focus,” Yoder says. “Fortunately, with the exception of some very structured and sequential majors in math and the sciences, there is room for exploration.”
Advisers can suggest numerous ways to take stock of academic and career opportunities at the University.
“If a student likes science, I encourage them to read about specific areas within the sciences, like exercise science, science education, and engineering,” Claus says. “Another thing I suggest to students is that they look down the road at a particular major by reading descriptions of courses open to juniors and seniors in the University’s General Catalog, to see if they spark the imagination.”
Additional online resources provide another way for students to research careers and majors.
“The Career Center site (www.careers.uiowa.edu) has information on internships, occupations, and career inventories,” Claus says. “The Academic Advising Center’s web site (www.uiowa.edu/web/advisingcenter) has lots of wonderful tools to help students think about majors.”
“It may sound corny,” Yoder says, “but majors that work best are usually in areas that students like best.”
He acknowledges that those majors aren’t always the same ones that parents, who are naturally concerned about their son’s or daughter’s ability to make a living, think their child should pursue.
“For example, when a student wants to major in music and a parent wants that student to major in business, a minor can sometimes be a good compromise,” Yoder says. “But I encourage parents to let their student experiment with classes and explore a bit.”
Yoder also encourages parents to be open when students come home with ideas about traveling abroad or changing majors.
“These are opportunities that may not come again, and they can be very positive experiences,” Yoder says. “Parental support can be critical.”
Students are scheduled to see their advisers once more during first semester, when they register for classes. These 20-minute appointments, held in late November and early December, are at a hectic time of year for students. Still, it’s important that students meet face-to-face with their advisers.
“We see an awful lot of schedules that are really wrong,” Yoder says. “A student may have gotten information about what to take from a friend, but that friend may not have the same major or prerequisites. We remind students of the appropriate sequence in which courses must be taken or how to fit in courses for a particular major.”
Once students have completed 24 credit hours and declared a major, faculty advisers in the student’s major takes over. The Academic Advising Center offers an “Adviser On Call” service to assist faculty members.
“They may need help if a student wants to change majors, or add a second major,” Claus says.
Students who are planning to go on to professional school, say in law or dentistry, continue to meet with their academic adviser in addition to their departmental faculty adviser. Academic advisers help students through the application process, alerting them to entrance requirements, including courses, exams, and letters of recommendation.
Although students are required to meet with their advisers three times during the first semester, Claus and Yoder encourage parents to suggest a visit to the Academic Advising Center if a student calls home with a problem regarding the transition to college.
“Parents know their students better than anyone, and know if they seem troubled or confused,” Yoder says. “We have the same goal that parents have for their students. Our goal is that students succeed.”
By Linzee Kull McCray